Parliamentary Bookshelf Vol 36 No 3

Article 9 / 11 , Vol 36 No 3 (Autumn)

Parliamentary Bookshelf

Across the Aisle: Opposition in Canadian Politics by David E. Smith

Not satisfied with a Triple Crown for his previous three works on the Crown, the Senate and the House of Commons, David Smith has gone for the Grand Slam with this work on parliamentary opposition. In some ways this is his most important work partly because so little has been written about the subject but mainly because of the insight it offers not only into the murky waters of opposition and also the ongoing constitutional struggle betweem advocates of classical Westminster style responsible government and those who are more radical democrats.

A large part of the book is historical in nature and deals with classical opposition in a two party system up to 1921 and the very slight differences wrought by adding minority parties to the equation from 1921 to 1992.

But something changes following the 1993 election. Two traditional parties, the Progressive Conservatives and the New Democratic Party were decimated and two new parties emerged. The Bloc québécois formed her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition despite its dedication to the independence of Quebec. More significantly a new Reform Party promised a whole new approach to parliamentary government.

Reform presented a challenge to the principle of parliamentary democracy, none more so than its ignorance of how the system worked. For instance following the narrow federalist victory in the Quebec Referendum of 1995 Manning suggested there should be a method of impeaching Jean Chrétien in case there is a screw loose in his office (p. 85).

With the transformation of Reform into a new Conservative Party and the emergence of the NDP to the status of Official Opposition after the 2011 election one might conclude that the status quo is back.

Instead, Smith shows that the character of opposition appears to have been permanently changed. The old view that Parliament is a place to achieve consensus has been replaced by a sense that in Parliament the “majority rules” Government and Loyal Opposition are no longer partners who work together in the service of the Sovereign. Instead sovereignty is seen as resting with the people and the two teams, government and opposition; compete for a favourable nod from the new sovereign. The implications of this change are enormous and explain why western democracies have lost their way and why the mixed constitutions of south East Asia may be better equipped to survive in the long run. But that is the subject for another book.

Smith’s focus is on Canada which, like Britain, has a mixed constitution but we seem intent on following the Americans and staking everything in a blind faith in the virtues of democracy.

He points to several important differences between British and Canadian approaches to opposition. Perhaps the most important is the way the British Shadow Cabinet serves as a real government in waiting whereas the critic portfolios in Canada have little relation to who will be appointed to which ministries when the government changes. This may be one reason it takes days to do a transition in Britain and weeks or months in Canada. The proliferation of Officers of Parliament in Canada has also served to undermine parliamentary opposition.

Independence and accountability are contradictory principles, whose realization is further impeded by the triangular set of interrelationships that exist between officers, governments and the legislature. (p. 117).

The growth of independent officers may appear to be a refinement of legislative oversight but Smith agrees with those who see them as another example of American influence.

The chapter, Whither Parliamentary Opposition, deals in part with the coalition crisis of 2008-2009. On one hand he suggests that the Liberals may have been too anxious to return to power rather than accept the verdict of the electorate and work effectively as an opposition. On the other hand,

If governments are not made and unmade in the House of commons what does this mean for the status of Parliament (p.151)

The book concludes, uncharacteristically, on a pessimistic note. Smith suggests that we are embracing irreconcilable principles in our constitution. Ultimately the question is whether members of the House of Commons owe fidelity to their respective constituents or to their sovereign. It cannot be both.

Gary Levy


Parlementarisme et Francophonie, edited by Éric Montigny and François Gélineau

This edited volume is a result of an international symposium on francophone parliaments, Plurielle et fière de l’être: la Francophonie parlementaire, organized by Laval University’s Research Chair on Democracy and Parliamentary Institutions. It took place in the Legislative Council Room of the Québec National Assembly on February 25 and 26, 2011, with over 200 in attendance.

The Francophonie (with a capital F) refers to the institutional structure governing relations among French-speaking states. The parliaments of these states and federations are eligible for membership in an interparliamentary and international cooperative assembly, the Assemblée parlementaire de la Francophonie.

The roughly 70 member parliaments are highly diverse both in how they are organized and how they conduct themselves. Until 2011, no real comparative study of this diversity had been carried out, hence the symposium in Québec City. The aim was to catalogue the various parliamentary practices within the Francophonie, explore the differences between the parliaments and identify where they are similar.

For this summary, we first focus on Canada’s various legislatures that were discussed in oral and written contributions (the Parliament of Canada, the Québec National Assembly and the Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick). We then turn our attention to the Parliament of the French Republic and to the Swiss Federal Assembly.

Chapter 1 deals with the Parliament of Canada. From the outset, author Éric Montigny states that the executive branch plays a leading role in Parliament, the government, through its House leaders, controls the legislative agenda. Then there is the prime minister, who enjoys the powers of an elected monarch. As the head of the government, he is able to make many public appointments: judges (including provincial superior court justices), senior federal public servants, senators and so forth.

In a minority parliament, the opposition parties have significant influence over the fate of the government’s legislative program, obliging the government to negotiate passage of its bills one by one. Minority governments occur relatively frequently in Canada; there have been roughly a dozen since 1867.

The author argues that the principle of responsible government in Canada blurs the lines between the executive and the legislative. However, this does not prevent the opposition from exercising meaningful control over the government and the public service, for which it has a number of institutional tools at its disposal.

Chapter 2 looks at Québec’s parliamentary system. Professor Réjean Pelletier views ministerial responsibility as paradoxically leading to the government’s non-responsibility before the Assembly. In his view, this results in unwavering support for the government by the members of the ruling party due to party discipline. The many powers that were at one time exercised by the Queen or King have been handed not to the Assembly, but to the Premier. As a result, the government enjoys tremendous control over the legislature. According to Professor Pelletier, in Québec there is not a cooperation of legislative and executive powers, but rather a blending of powers. He cites the UK Parliament as a legislature that Québec’s parliamentarians can use as a model for making changes to Question Period and to issues surrounding party discipline.

Chapter 3 focusses on the Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick. Author Roger Ouellette writes that the members of the Legislative Assembly in Fredericton must adhere to strict party discipline. He cites the 2011 report Proposals for Legislative Reform in New-Brunswick, which recommends that the Assembly consider adopting the UK’s three-line-whip system. However, Professor Ouellette expresses some doubt as to the possibility of reforming free votes given the conventions regarding responsible government in Canada.

The parliamentary systems of several European states and countries are similar to what is in place in Canada, Québec and New Brunswick in that the executive branch predominates over parliament. This is the conclusion of the chapters focussing on the Belgian Federal Parliament, the Parliament of the French-speaking Community of Belgium, Luxembourg’s Chamber of Deputies and the Parliament of the French Republic.

In the case of France, Professor Armel Le Divallec writes in Chapter 9 that both assemblies in Paris—the Senate and the National Assembly—serve mostly as a check on the government’s power, essentially limiting it.

The executive exercises significant influence to oversee and direct assembly business. It dominates the Conference of Presidents, which is responsible for parliamentary planning. The government can also rely on the support of a disciplined majority in the National Assembly. Party discipline is the rule for both the majority and opposition parties.

Reforms introduced in 2008-2009 focussed on reducing the priority given since 1958 to government business. Under this reform, one out of four weeks of sitting are now dedicated to assembly business to oversee government and evaluate policies. However, Professor Le Divallec does not believe that this reform will affect the overall balance between the presidency, the government and Parliament. Since 1958, the presidency of the Republic has played a dominant role in the political system, except during periods of cohabitation where the president and the parliamentary majority are in opposition.

As Parlementarisme et Francophonie shows, some countries in the Francophonie have political systems that strike a better balance between the government and parliament. Switzerland is one such example. In Chapter 7, Ruth Lüthi and Pierre-Hervé Freléchoz write that the bicameral Federal Assembly occupies a strong position within the country’s political system. Roughly 20% of the bills passed into law are private members’ bills, and this figure is on the rise. As well, the Parliament in Bern sometimes makes substantial changes to government bills. Lastly, any federal budget item can be amended via a proposal from one of the two parliamentary finance committees.

Switzerland’s political system is not a parliamentary one, even though the authors of Parlementarisme et Francophonie refer to it as such in their conclusion (see pages 336 onward); neither is it a presidential system. Francophone authors such as Georges Burdeau and Philippe Lauvaux have called it a “directorial government,” meaning that the Federal Assembly and the Federal Council (the Cabinet) exercise only one state function: the government function. There are several ways in which the Swiss political system differs substantially from the Westminster model:

  • significant separation of legislative and executive powers
  • Parliament cannot bring down the government
  • the government does not have the power to dissolve Parliament
  • government members are elected by Parliament for the life of that Parliament

In all, the volume edited by Gélineau and Montigny discusses 20 parliaments in the Francophonie, including the legislative bodies of several African countries. Simply from a numerical standpoint, this is a significant sample given the number of sovereign countries (30) and federated states (provinces, cantons – a total of 11) where French is an official or co-official language.

Each chapter broadly describes a legislature, either bicameral or unicameral. Contributors to the symposium and the volume were invited to present and analyze the workings of one, two or even several assemblies. They were provided with an analytical framework to use, focussing on four major themes:

  • institutional and historical background
  • parliamentary organization
  • procedure
  • parliamentary oversight

This volume helps fill a gap. Not until now has there been a political science monograph providing such a broad survey of Francophone parliaments. Of course, over the years the Assemblée parlementaire de la Francophonie has produced a catalogue of parliamentary procedures and practices (the Recueil des procédures et des pratiques parlementaires), which provides information on 33 legislatures, with contributions from officials within the legislatures in question. This document, available only in electronic format, contains chapters presenting the information under 10 major themes.

Sections in the chapters of Parlementarisme et Francophonie focus on placing national or subnational legislatures within a broader institutional context. Most of the authors present their country’s French-speaking community and its history, institutions, the status of the French language and so forth.

The volume does not contain a summary chapter. Despite the completeness of the national contributions, it definitely lacks a thorough comparative analysis. However, the authors do state that they wish to see a follow-up to their work. They conclude by recommending that further research be conducted into the factors that promote parliamentary reform and institutional arrangements.

André Grenier

Research Service

Québec National Assembly Library