Thomas Mulcair: Steeped in the Tradition of Opposition as Alternative Government
On 24 March 2012, the New Democratic party members elected Thomas Mulcair as their new leader. In a television interview a few hours after becoming the leader of the New Democratic Party and therefore the Leader of the Official Opposition in the 41st Parliament, Mulcair declared that the New Democrats will seek to form the next government after the next election, likely to occur in 2015, by “pospos[ing] a concrete plan and by presenting “capable people as candidates.” He also commented that “as Official Opposition, the New Democrats have already recruited high-level candidates more easily” and will put forward a team who will “offer the New Democrats as the next government.” Finally, Mulcair reflected on the failed Liberal-New Democratic coalition agreement of 2008 and criticized the Liberals’ reticence to treat the New Democrats as a serious partner. He unequivocally rejected the possibility of entering into a parliamentary coalition with the Liberals, whom he accused of being “good at flashing left and turning right.” He concluded that “Canadians want a real option” that can form the next government. He added:
For the first time, we’re poised [to form government]. We have to take a state of fact [being the Official Opposition] and turn it into a state of mind: in other words, a perception by the public that [the New Democrats are] the government in waiting, that the New Democrats can actually form the next government. That’s our challenge for the next three and a half years. […] I want to bring all people who want to get rid of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives [to the NDP]. […] We are capable of rallying progressives of all strips under the NDP banner to form our first progressive NDP government in Canada.
Thomas Mulcair will emerge as the most effective Leader of the Opposition since Stephen Harper, because he intrinsically understands that the Official Opposition must present itself as an alternative government and that he, as leader, must therefore present himself as the alternative prime minister.
Bruce Hyer’s Proposal to Eliminate the Adversarialism Essential to Responsible Government and Loyal Opposition
In contrast, Bruce Hyer, in an effort to integrate himself permanently into the media narrative on the evils of party discipline, put forward some propositions in “Why I Quit the NDP (And What Might Make Me Come Back)” that would undermine the principles of Responsible Government and Loyal Opposition. At least three of the four steps in the Plan to Restore Democracy to Parliament” would derogate from the principles of Responsible Government and Loyal Opposition and make the Commons more superficial and meaningless. I agree with him only on point two, that party leaders should not possess the power of veto over the nomination of candidates. I strongly oppose proportional representation and its corollary of perpetual coalition government. His conception of “collaboration between parties” misrepresents the roles of Government and Opposition under Responsible Government, and fits into the general criticism of “randomized seating” as a method of encouraging more free votes.
The Reform Party, that old bastion of right-wing Romanticism, first seriously introduced the delegate theory of representation to Canadian politics, which they often expressed as a normative statement: MPs should vote based on their constituents’ interests. In the early sittings of the 35th Parliament, Preston Manning (the populist son of a premier of Alberta who has now ironically succeeded in integrating himself into the federal political establishment) flouted parliamentary custom by refusing to sit in the first row. Bruce Hyer has adopted both these views. Under Responsible Government, Members cannot and should not vote primarily “according to the wishes of their constituents.” Since Ministers of the Crown determine the government’s policies, Members could only act on their constituents’ behalf by voting for or against any given government legislation. Members cannot introduce legislation that requires spending. Such money bills require the Royal Recommendation (the approbation of Cabinet) because under Responsible Government, Ministers of Crown must take responsibility for all expenditure. Parliament must then approve of that expenditure by granting supply before the Government can spend money. In other words, Members could only propose legislation that benefits their constituents within the limited confines of the Private Members’ Bill. This idea that Members should vote based on the interests of their constituents could more properly be articulated as an argument to better delineate between votes of confidence and all other votes. Members could vote however they like on votes that do not pertain to matters of confidence, but they must toe the line on votes of confidence.
Reaffirmation of Responsible Government
Responsible Government means that Ministers of the Crown (the Prime Minister and Cabinet) take responsibility for all acts of the Crown (policies, expenditure, decisions) and that they must command the confidence of the Commons in order to govern. The implementation of policy sometimes requires expenditure as well as corresponding legislation. The Commons in turn expresses its confidence by passing supply; withholding supply thus amounts to a loss of confidence, after which the Prime Minister must either resign or advise the Governor General to dissolve Parliament.
Responsible Government operates on the premise of adversarialism between the Government and the Opposition within the House of Commons. The Opposition presents itself to the electorate as the alternative government so that it can implement its own policies and expenditures. As such, the Government sits to the Speaker’s right, and the mace points toward the same side of the Commons in order to symbolize that Ministers of the Crown possess the power to introduce bills and expenditure and have received official commission from the Governor General; the Opposition sits to the Speaker’s left and acts as a loyal, responsible alternative government. Thomas Mulcair understands and appreciates these principles; Bruce Hyer does not.
Members do not make policy. If Members want to augment their relevance, they need only reaffirm their necessary and proper roles of holding the Government to account by scrutinizing expenditures. However, Members like Bruce Hyer have so thoroughly lost sight of Responsible Government and Westminster parliamentarism that they now have designs on becoming Congressional Representatives, or what Americans call “law-makers,” and bolster their careers through Private Members Bills. In reality, Members hold the Sword of Damocles over the Government in the form of the confidence convention, not by embracing this mythology of the Independent, Virtuous Law-Maker who competes with the Government’s legislative agenda by introducing alternative legislation.
Hyer’s proposal to “randomize seating” derives from a romanticized version of the Balanced Constitution, in which political opposition took the form of a constant conflict between the King and the Commons, executive vs. the legislature. The American separation of powers replicates this inter-institutional opposition between the President and Congress. As Mann and Ornstein explained in their new book, the separation of powers (in which the executive does not depend upon the legislature) and inter-institutional opposition necessitate cross-party cooperation within the legislature. However, Responsible Government requires adversarialism between the Government and Opposition, which clash within the House of Commons.
I count myself as one “Independent Democrat” who will not facilitate Hyer’s systematic destruction of Responsible Government.
- Reaffirmation of Responsible Government
- Loyal Opposition
- Thoughts on “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism”, By Mann and Ornstein
 CBC News, “Mulcair Says NDP Are ‘Poised’ to Form Next Government,” 24 March 2012. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2012/03/24/pol-ndp-leadership-convention-vote-result.html [accessed 14 April 2012].
 See note 247 in Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit, House of Commons Procedure and Practice (2000).
 Sir John George Bourinot, Parliamentary Procedure and Practice, 4th ed. (Montreal: Dawson Brothers Publishing, 1916): 102.