Stephen Harper's parliamentary privileges

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The gap that separates government benches from the official opposition was reportedly established to keep each side more than two swords length from the other. At least that is the tale told about the Westminster parliament, the model for the Canadian parliament.

Parliamentary governments have a dynamic that is not widely understood. Rather than attacking sword in hand, as it were, governments tend to cherry pick ideas from the opposition. The reason is simple. No government wants an opposition party to build its base of support. Often, adopting an opposition policy helps a government keep its adversary from gaining ground.

In a minority situation, in 2008 Stephen Harper was forced to bring in an expansionary budget, though he was on record as denying the existence of a recession, and not believing in government deficits. He extended unemployment benefits, although he is a sworn enemy of social spending, especially for income support.

With the 41st Parliament about to open, and enjoying a majority for the first time, it is easy to imagine that Harper will move swiftly to implement his agenda, paying no attention to the 103 NDP members of the official opposition seated opposite. Undoubtedly, he will act swiftly to cut government spending, and reduce public service employment. His tough-on-crime agenda will proceed quickly. The long-gun registry will be killed. Senate reform will go ahead. He may well introduce legislation to privatize the CBC and Radio-Canada.

Furthermore, the prime minister may decide to ignore the official opposition when it points out that eight provinces support the doubling over time of Canada Pension Plan benefits. Harper could well turn a deaf ear when Jack Layton asks him why the government has ignored requests from mayors and the government of Quebec for army assistance to deal with the out of control flood waters in the Richelieu valley.

After his re-election in 1988, Brian Mulroney saw no need to heed the opposition calls for assistance to workers hurt by the introduction of free trade. After the demise of the Meech Lake Accord, he did not think it necessary to bring the opposition on board before attempting a second round of constitutional reform. By going it alone, when the 1993 election results were counted up, the Conservatives had won two seats.

Jean Chrétien took over from the Conservatives, and he governed in the more traditional way, taking ideas about deficit reduction, and a plan B for Quebec (what became the Clarity bill) directly from the Reform Party program, as its leader Preston Manning (and Stephen Harper) watched uncomfortably from across the aisle.

On announcing Canadian non-participation in the Iraq war, Chrétien acknowledged the wishes of Quebec, not just his own members, but also those from the hated Bloc Québeçois.

Chrétien won three successive majorities by borrowing governing ideas from the opposition.

Pierre Trudeau ran his 1972 election campaign against wage and price controls, proposed by his Conservative opponents. Returned to power in a minority situation, he then introduced them, and borrowed ideas liberally from the NDP as well. Wiser, he went on to win a majority again in 1974.

The dynamics of parliamentary government suggest that an opposition party can succeed in getting its ideas adopted by the government, and fail to take power, because the prime minister's party is strengthened as a result. Conversely, the prime minister can ignore the ideas of the opposition, allowing them to enlarge their base of support, and watch his government go down to defeat when the public judges he has lost touch with popular opinion. Either way the official opposition has a key role to play in the upcoming parliamentary session.

The sword of choice for Stephen Harper when he attacks opposition leaders is negative advertising on television. One of the democratic reform measures the official opposition should push to have introduced is bans on television advertising by political parties outside the electoral period. In the meantime, the NDP should be preparing its own ads comparing what the government is doing to what Canadians want to see from their government.

Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca.

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