The value of opposition and the perils of abusing your powers

Once upon a time, oppositions could extract concessions from governments. That all changed when oppositions started abusing their power to delay government business. Here, in my view, is a perfect example of how abusing power on one side leads to the abuse of power on the other:

One of the time-honoured ways that an opposition in a Parliament has had to oppose is to filibuster, to talk, and to talk things out, but we had an occasion where there was an extended filibuster, a speech that went on over several days—17 hours—so essentially what happened was, at that point, the opposition was engaged in obstruction. I should say that all of this has happened over time and over several administrations—every party, notwithstanding which party may have been in government or in opposition.

The government reacts to that in the way you would maybe expect, because they have to be able to govern. So what happened as a result of that is that we then saw time limits on speeches being imposed, and then, once we had time limits on speeches, one of the unintended consequences of that was—previous to that, third readings in the Legislature got passed sometimes in very quick measure and often on the nod, because there had been a full and fair discussion at second reading and in committee. The unintended consequence of the imposition of time limits on speeches was that, then, the reaction from the opposition was to, in every case, use the maximum amount of time to debate at third reading. So, in an effort to kind of contract consideration of legislation, it did have the consequence of expanding it in part through a longer debate at third reading.

Then you end up with a situation where the opposition now can’t oppose by way of talking something out, so they engage in other tactics. So we end up with an opposition that reads petitions for an entire afternoon to prevent the government from getting to orders of the day, and then does it again the next day, and then the third party engages in that same tactic.

So now the government reacts by saying, “Well, we can’t have this, so we’re going to impose a time limit on petitions.” The little bit of trivia here is that petitions, before we had a 15-minute time limit, took, on average, six minutes in every day of the legislative schedule. Now we have a time limit of 15 minutes, and you know what happens. The 15 minutes has expired by the end of the day. You know, again, there’s an unintended consequence.

The petitions having been dealt with, the next tactic that the opposition engaged in was to read a title of a bill that contained the name of every body of water in the province of Ontario, so the reading of that bill took the entire legislative day, and at 6 o’clock, the Speaker had no choice but to adjourn the House until the next sessional day, and then we engaged in the same kind of thing the next sessional day. The government reacted as one would expect: “We can’t have this.” Now there is a time limit on introduction of bills at 30 minutes, and no single bill can take longer than five minutes to introduce.

What I’m trying to get at here, though, is that little by little, the processes in the House have been ratcheted down and the opposition given fewer and fewer opportunities to express opposition and displeasure with government initiatives, that the tactics have become, over time, much more extreme, and then the government, over time, has reacted sometimes in a fairly heavy-handed manner.

So we have a piecemeal amendment process that has gone on over time to the standing orders that I think it’s arguable may not have been in the interest of the institution as a whole.

It’s a message I really want to get across: one abuse of power begets another abuse of power. This doesn’t mean don’t oppose, it means oppose with restraint. Responsible filibusters will extract concessions. Irresponsible ones will get filibusters taken away from you.

A while ago, I made this point on Lords reform and time allocation both here and in the UK, and I will continue to make it despite the fact it hasn’t really been picked up on. If oppositions (big O or little o) don’t show restraint, governments won’t either. And governments have power to stop you altogether. Accept there are limits on your power, or you will lose all of it in the long run.

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