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The Truth about a 'Strong Opposition'

It's vital. But don’t expect the 'level of debate' to improve.

By Rafe Mair 23 May 2005 |

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Forgive me if I go over a bit of old ground but it really is time we all understand what really happens in the Legislature and, more importantly, what does not. In interviewing two of the “star” Liberal candidates, Wally Oppal and Carole Taylor, I heard what I can only describe as breathtaking naiveté. They were going to raise the level of debate and bring fresh ideas to the House. They will do no such thing, of course.

There is no debate in the Legislature. Did you hear that? There is no debate in the Legislature, never has been and never will be.

Moreover, the opposition plays absolutely no role in the formation of legislation and, for that matter, neither does the government’s backbench. There is, of course, a format that looks like debate but it’s merely a ceremonial dance that must take place before legislation is passed. Legislation decided upon by the government, which is to say the Premier and cabinet, once tabled in the House, will be passed no matter what MLAs want – the Opposition MLAs are too few to stop it and the government MLAs do what they’re told.

The Legislature: a primer

What, then, is the point of the place?

Its main function is to permit the opposition the opportunity of exposing what they believe is bad about government legislation and policy and to demand answers from the government when the budget is tabled and “estimates” are debated. The latter function has been much eroded in latter years.

At one time when the budget was tabled, the House would be transformed into what was known as the Committee of the Whole, the Speaker was replaced by the Chairman of the Committee of the whole, and each minister would have their budgetary estimates exposed to questioning for as long or as thoroughly as the opposition wished.

Under the guise of expediency (and how much liberty has been lost to that over the years!) Premier Harcourt divided the Committee into branches so more than one minister could be quizzed at once. This splitting of estimates made it difficult for the opposition to be in two or three places at the same time and made the process much less painful for governments.

The other function of the House is to permit opposition members, in question period and when speaking to bills, to raise merry old hell and thus draw to the attention of the media the terrible things the government is trying to do. The “merry old hell” bit is what well meaning citizens – and Mr. Oppal and Ms. Taylor - want to soften because they simply don’t understand that the Legislature is the place where British Columbians spill blood figuratively so as to avoid doing it literally in the streets.

But let me tell you the real value of a reasonably large and effective opposition. It makes the government more alert and more careful. Much sloppy and ill considered legislation has been avoided when the government, as it goes through its internal functions of getting the bill ready, takes into account that mistakes or ill thought out legislation will bring unpleasant news stories exposed by an alert opposition to a media just waiting for a little bloodletting.

The press has its limits

Let me, though, tell you where the opposition does its best work. Every opposition with enough members has a “shadow” cabinet so that every cabinet minister, in addition to having to face the entire opposition, has one opposition member whose raison d’etre is to hold his feet to the fire. When the NDP were reduced to two, there was no way in the world they could cover off some 25 ministries.

In the case of Ms. MacPhail and Ms. Kwan, their plight was made worse by the government’s mean spirited refusal to grant them official party status, thus depriving them of the funding they needed. This meant that the media moved into the informational vacuum and tried to do the job opposition critics would normally do. The press is ill-suited to this task because they simply don’t have the resources, legal and monetary, that an opposition critic has.

Let me give you an example. Neither the two opposition members of the last Parliament, nor I daresay many of the government members, would deny that almost all of the opposition to the governments fish farm policy came from the media and the bulk of that from me. That’s no knock on Ms. MacPhail or Ms. Kwan – they couldn’t do it all. Now that there is a full opposition there will be a critic assigned to both the Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries and one for the Minister of Sustainable Resource Management, the ministries responsible for the utterly irresponsible desecration of our wild salmon runs. Each of these “shadow” ministers will have appropriate budgets so they can dig deeply into ministerial policy and plans.

The same will be true for all ministries, which is really very good news for the public because they will know that a proper watchdog function will be in place. The media will be able to better inform themselves because the minister’s positions will be thoroughly tested by a person paid to ask awkward questions.

No matter how you voted last Tuesday, be thankful that a solid opposition was elected because without it, government becomes mentally and physically lazy, policy goes untested and you are, simply by reason of the system being absent the important function of opposition, ill informed and badly served.

Rafe Mair, a regular columnist for The Tyee, can be heard weekdays 8:30-10:30 on 600AM and his website is  [Tyee]

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