Hudak's PCs in Conflict of Interest with Role as Official Opposition?

April 26, 2012 by  

A lot could be said – and is being said – about the Progressive Conservatives response – or rather, non-response – to the budget. The prevailing line of commentary is that Tim Hudak and the PCs failed to “show leadership” by deciding to vote against the budget before even knowing what it contained; and for failing to take part in the budget negotiations that have occurred in the weeks since its release. That they failed to show leadership may be true, but one would be hard pressed to demonstrate that that represents some kind of recent development. No, the essential issue arising from PCs’ conduct in respect of the 2012 budget is not a lack of leadership: it is a dereliction of duty.

In our parliamentary system of government, the governing party is only 1/2 of the equation. As Gerald Schmitz explained in his “The Opposition in a Parliamentary System“:

Genuine political opposition is a necessary attribute of democracy, tolerance, and trust in the ability of citizens to resolve differences by peaceful means. The existence of an opposition, without which politics ceases and administration takes over, is indispensable to the functioning of parliamentary political systems. If these systems are perceived as not working well…ultimately the threat is to democratic rights and freedoms generally.

The party with the second greatest number of seats normally forms Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. In Ontario’s legislature, Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives hold that title, but I submit they not only have left the perception the parliamentary system isn’t working: they have utterly failed to perform their duties in the role of Official Opposition.

Simply voting against a bill is not opposition. That is especially the case where the decision to vote against the bill is made before the content of the bill is known to the Official Opposition. The PCs’ decision having been made prior to the release of the budget, it is demonstrably false that Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives voted against any particular measure in the budget. They didn’t vote against the content of the budget at all. They treated the budget vote as nothing but a confidence motion.

[NOTE: in our parliamentary system, if a majority of MPPs express a lack of confidence in the government – by way of a vote on a confidence motion or a money bill, like a budget – the Lieutenant Governor General must decide whether or not some other MPP would have the confidence of the majority of MPPs to form a government. If not, the Legislature is dissolved, and an election is scheduled.]

The essential problem with treating the budget vote as nothing but a confidence motion is that, when the Official Opposition is functioning properly, the Official Opposition’s policy positions serve the role of a goal post. The other goal post is the policy positions of the governing party. When the government and the Official Opposition have widely differing views on substantive issues (e.g., Should the ban on health insurance be continued? Should the budget be balanced in 2012?), the goal posts are further apart. When the government and the Official Opposition have similar views, the goal posts are close together. However, when the Official Opposition both opposes few if any of the government’s views, and proposes few if any of its own, differing views, there is only one goal post. There is nothing to discuss. There are no differences to resolve. The entire goal of having an Official Opposition is undermined and we are left with politics ceasing and administration taking over. There is, in effect, a complete breakdown of the parliamentary system.

During the lead up to voting day in 2011, Ontarians watched as the Ontario PCs campaigned on an almost contentless election platform. The PC party was so confident that folks wanted to be rid of Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals that it decided to spend almost all of its time attacking the Liberals positions, and almost no time proposing any substantively different positions of their own. In fact, almost everything that the Progressive Conservatives did say during election 2011 was an echo of the McGuinty Liberals. Most noteworthy was the Progressive Conservatives’ commitment to uphold the Liberal plan to balance the budget by 2017-18 without cutting health care or education though spending on health care and education consumes over 68% of Ontario revenues. Their plan, essentially, was to get sucked into a power vacuum left behind by exiting Liberals. They wanted to get sucked into that vacuum based not upon principles or ideas, but upon poll standings.

Now, having failed to advocate particular changes to the 2012 budget, the Progressive Conservatives have continued that pattern. The result is that those who are being victimized by the budget – including the tens of thousands who now will be spending thousands more in income taxes thanks to the silence with which the Progressive Conservatives treated the NDP/Liberal Robbin’ Hood proposal – have been denied an Official Opposition to defend them from bad policy. Worse: they have been denied an Official Opposition to advocate good policy.

Why are the Progressive Conservatives not fulfilling their role as Official Opposition? The answer is simple: to propose ideas different from those being implemented by the Liberals, the PCs would have to pretend not to want Liberal policies. However, the fact of the matter is that Progressive Conservativism – if it ever was something different from Liberalism – now differs from Liberalism only in name, not in ideology or substance. In terms of ideology and substance, we have two Liberal parties in this province, and it is literally impossible for a Liberal Party to play the role of Official Opposition against another Liberal Party. So the PCs don’t bother trying. Instead, they stay true to their Liberal principles, seeking only to replace the governing Liberals with the opposition Liberals.

To sum up: actually opposing the policies of the Liberals and proposing ones of their own instead – i.e., the fulfilling their role as the Official Opposition – would require the Progressive Conservatives to be disloyal to their Liberalism. Accordingly, the Progressive Conservative party is in a conflict of interest: if it follows its Liberal principles, it cannot carry out its duties as Official Opposition, and if it carries out its duties as Official Opposition, it must become disloyal to its Liberal principles, and fabricate a phony desire for something different.

Where does this tragic situation leave us? As Schmitz explained, the lack of a de facto opposition poses a threat to Ontario’s democracy and freedom. Accordingly, those pondering the wisdom of holding another election so soon would be well served to consider whether what would serve Ontario best is to show the Progressive Conservatives the door, and to elect an actual opposition to McGuinty/Horwath Liberalism.


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