The Role of the Opposition in Parliament
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 27 Oct 1949, p. 67-74
Diefenbaker, John G., Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
"His Majesty's Loyal Opposition" as a necessary part of our British Parliamentary system of government. Origins of the name "His Majesty's Loyal Opposition." The role of the Opposition. Some quotes regarding the function and nature of the Opposition. The speaker's view of the role and purpose of the Opposition. Views of the parliamentary majorities toward the Opposition, with quotes. The increase in responsibility of the Opposition. The one party state that exists in the absence of a strong Opposition, and the dangers inherent in such a situation. A description of Parliament by Quintin Hogg. The need for change in Parliament to meet the changing needs of a modern world, but the need for Parliament to be changeless in its concept and tradition.
Date of Original
27 Oct 1949
Language of Item
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Full Text
Chairman: First Vice-President, Mr. SYDNEY HERMANT
Thursday, October 27th, 1949


Fellow Members and Guests of the Empire Club of Canada: We are to be privileged to hear an Address today by John Diefenbaker, K.C., Member of Parliament representing Lake Centre, Sask. A fourth-generation Canadian on both sides, John Diefenbaker was born in Grey County, Ontario. He received his primary schooling at the Plains Rd. School in East Toronto.

His family having moved to Saskatchewan Mr. Diefenbaker continued his education there, graduating from the University of Saskatchewan with the Degree of M.A. in Political Science, having financed himself by doing farm work and teaching-He is presently a Member of the Senate of the University. Immediately upon Graduation John Diefenbaker enlisted with the 196th Western University Battalion serving Overseas until invalided home in 1917, following which he studied Law at the University of Saskatchewan and was admitted to the Bar in 1919. He hung out his shingle in Wakaw, Sask., and at the age of 25 was recognized as a brilliant Counsel. In 1924 he moved to Prince Albert, becoming a King's Counsel in 1929. For a time he was the Leader of the Provincial Conservative Party in the Province of Saskatchewan.

John Diefenbaker is a keen student of World Affairs. a great believer in the Commonwealth and Empire, and a stout defender of Human Rights.

Canadians of all Political Parties and from all walks of Life respect him as a fearless, fair, and constructive critic of the present Government, and all deeply appreciate a man of his character and capacity devoting himself to Public Service.

Mr. Diefenbaker's subject today is "The Role of the Opposition in Parliament" Mr. Diefenbaker.


In the development of our British Parliamentary system of government "His Majesty's Loyal Opposition" is a necessary part. Without it the House of Commons for the last three hundred years would not have been the bulwark of freedom.

The name "His Majesty's Loyal Opposition" originated in 1826 when Mr. Hobhouse, afterwards Lord Broughton, while engaged in an attack on Mr. Canning used these words:

"It is said to be hard on His Majesty's Ministers to raise objections of this character but it is more hard on His Majesty's Opposition to compel them to take this course."

Canning welcomed the expression and stated--"My Right Honourable friend could not have invented a better phrase to designate us than that which he adopted. That we are certainly to all intents and purposes a branch of His Majesty's Government its proceedings for some time past have proven. Although with the gentlemen opposite in office, we are in power, the measures are ours but the emoluments are theirs". "His Majesty's Loyal Opposition" has been since then the designation given to the alternative party in the House of Commons. The role of the Opposition is an integral and important element of the constitutional organization of Parliament. Its leader receives the same salary as does a Cabinet Minister and in Britain so important is his position that he stands on the side of the Prime Minister at the opening of Parliament.

The Opposition that fulfills its functions makes as important a contribution to the preservation of the Parliamentary system as does the government of the day. Its functions are comprehensive and important and cannot and must not be limited to the definition given by Tierney one hundred and twenty years ago when he contended that: "The duty of an Opposition is to propose nothing, to oppose everything and to turn out the government."

I know of no better epitome of the House of Commons than the words used by Jennings in his work on Parliament

"It holds its Opposition partly because of its great traditions. It has fought kings and dismissed them. It has raised up an army to destroy a king and was itself destroyed by its army; only to recall another kind and to rise up again on the site of its own destruction. It has been modified and reformed to meet the changes of centuries. It has been led by the greatest men that the country has produced-Pitt the Elder and Pitt the Younger, Sir Robert Peel, Disraeli and Gladstone, Lloyd George; it has seen the greatest wits and orators in opposition to each other; it has, above all, achieved the pinnacle of freedom by listening to men like Charles James Fox, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Lloyd George and Mr. Ramsay MacDonald and Churchill who dared to be unpopular and, in the cant phrase, "unpatriotic", because they insisted on speaking the truth as they understood it."

If Parliament is to be preserved as a living institution His Majesty's Loyal Opposition must fearlessly perform its functions. When it properly discharges them the preservation of our freedom is assured. The reading of history proves that freedom always dies when criticism ends. It upholds and maintains the rights of minorities against majorities. It must be vigilant against oppression and unjust invasions by the Cabinet of the rights of the people. It should supervise all expenditures and prevent over expenditure by exposing to the light of public opinion wasteful expenditures or worse. It finds fault; it suggests amendments; it asks questions and elicits information; it arouses, educates and molds public opinion by voice and vote. It must scrutinize every action by the government and in doing so prevents the short-cuts through democratic procedure that governments like to make.

Parliament is a place where in full discussion freedom is preserved, where one side advances arguments and the other examines them and where decisions are arrived at after passing through the crucible of public discussion.

The Opposition that discharges its responsibilities becomes the responsible outlet of intelligent criticism. Indeed, most, if not all, authorities on constitutional government agree that Britain's freedom from civil war since the development of the party system is due in the main to the fact that the Opposition has provided an outlet and a safety-valve for opposition.

I am fully aware that parliamentary majorities are not prone to acknowledge the necessity of the Opposition-and more so when the Opposition fully and competently discharges its constitutional functions. One political writer has expressed the view of the average government in these words

"The Government tends to regard the Opposition as the brake on a car going uphill whereas the Opposition thinks the car is going downhill."

The critical question is often asked as to why the need of two sides in Parliament, one to propose and the other to oppose. The simple answer is that the experience of history has been that only a strong and fearless Opposition can assure preservation of our fundamental freedoms and of the rights of the individual against executive and bureaucratic invasions of those rights. Quintin Hogg, an outstanding member of the British Parliament has given the answer in these words: "Countries cannot be fully free until they have an organized Opposition. It is not a long step from the absence of an organized Opposition to a complete dictatorship."

The Opposition cannot oppose without reason. Its alternative policies must be responsible and practicable for it has a responsibility to the King to provide the alternative government to the one in power. Without an Opposition decision by discussion would end and be supplanted by virtual dictatorship for governments tend to prefer rule by order-in-council to Parliament and bureaucrats prefer to be uncontrolled by Parliament or the courts.

The responsibility of the Opposition has been greatly increased for in the last few years the Cabinets in the various Parliaments of the British Commonwealth have recovered most of the powers lost two hundred years ago. It must not be forgotten that Parliament gave up many of its rights during the days of war and allowed fundamental freedoms to be abrogated. These rights were given up as security for victory. These freedoms must be restored and only with a strong Opposition is restoration certain.

It is human nature for governments to find the Opposition distasteful and the longer governments are in power the more they become convinced that they govern by Divine Right and that their decisions are infallible. Only a strong Opposition can prevent a Cabinet with a commanding majority from ruling without regard to the rights of minorities. Independence is not looked for among most private members supporting the government, for individual independence more often than not denies personal preferment. As for collective independence by the members supporting the government, the Cabinet is master by holding over its majority the threat of dissolution.

The absence of a strong Opposition means a one party state. A one party state means an all-powerful Cabinet. It is as true in the twentieth century as it was in the nineteenth when Lord Acton wrote

"All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely."

There have been tremendous changes in government in the last fifty years but it is nonetheless true now as it was at the beginning of this century that only with an organized and effective Opposition can democracy be preserved. Canada's freedom and destiny is in the custody of the Opposition no less than it is of the Government. Government has become so complex and its ramifications so extensive that no matter how industrious a member of Parliament may be, it is impossible to master all the problems that come before Parliament and more so in that there are not available to the Opposition the trained civil servants who are at the disposal of the government at all times. In my opinion the Opposition will not be able to discharge its duty unless it has available to it trained and outstanding research experts whose salaries will be paid by the state.

An Opposition does not properly perform its functions unless it examines all expenditures made with a searching eye and with fearless criticism, yet Members of the House of Commons have no proper facilities to enable the full examination of the Public Accounts and Estimates. Debates on Estimates are futile. An expenditure of millions of dollars that are totally unjustified could conceivably be passed without much danger of detection. Canadians have become so used to the expenditure of billions that a million here or there seems of little consequence. I believe that the Public Accounts Committee should be modelled after the British Committee wherein the majority of members belong to the Opposition party and the chairman is an Opposition member. Under our practice and it has been continued for several decades, the Public Accounts Committee is under the Chairmanship of a supporter of the government as are the majority of the Committee and, in consequence, a critical examination of wasteful expenditure is not encouraged.

If Parliament is to be made as effective an instrument in the modern world as it should be the procedure of Parliament should be modernized and brought up to date. The trend in consequence of two wars in one generation has been in the direction of by-passing Parliament by the passing of orders-in-council which interfere with individual rights under order-in-council which too often deny the right of appeal to the court. There should be a standing committee of the House of Commons whose responsibility it would be to vigilantly examine and report on all orders-in-council that diminish the freedom of the individual.

If such a committee performed no other function it would make the people of Canada Parliament-conscious. While Parliament has its short-comings it remains the bulwark of our freedom. It has been described by Quintin Hogg in these words

"Parliament is not like a building designed and constructed by a single architect such as the Parthenon, St. Paul's Cathedral, or the Empire State Building. Parliament resembles rather an ancient family mansion which has been lived in continuously for a period of centuries, and has served the needs of those that have dwelt therein by constantly modifying and adding to its conveniences from generation to generation. In the centre there may be a Norman keep--largely deserted now but giving its name to the whole and revered and venerated as the most ancient part of the building, and dating from the days when defence was the main object of architecture.

Hard by is the Tudor Wing--still serviceable and reflecting a period when first comfort began to take, precedence over security. The Jacobean facade is the keynote of the whole, and the great staircase was the scene of a bloody encounter in the days of the Civil Wars. In Queen Anne's day they added a portico, and the great library dates from the Hanoverian period. The Victorian additions are commodious and well-built but somewhat ugly, while somewhere at the back scaffolding and a pile of bricks announce that something new is still being added to suit the needs of the present times. The whole has served the family well for generations of happy and vigorous life, but it baffles the planner to reduce its form to any single conception.

To those who live in it, it is a priceless possession not to be exchanged for anything more meretricious and unified. But those who are unfamiliar with its history are sometimes apt to lose themselves in its winding corridors and to be surprised and trapped by floors built at different times and on separate levels."

Parliament must continue to be the custodian of freedom. To that end it must constantly change its procedure to meet the changing needs of a modern world but must be changeless in its concept and tradition. Parliament will only remain the guardian of freedom and our free institutions so long as His Majesty's Loyal Opposition is fully responsible and effective in the discharge of its functions.

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The Role of the Opposition in Parliament

"His Majesty's Loyal Opposition" as a necessary part of our British Parliamentary system of government. Origins of the name "His Majesty's Loyal Opposition." The role of the Opposition. Some quotes regarding the function and nature of the Opposition. The speaker's view of the role and purpose of the Opposition. Views of the parliamentary majorities toward the Opposition, with quotes. The increase in responsibility of the Opposition. The one party state that exists in the absence of a strong Opposition, and the dangers inherent in such a situation. A description of Parliament by Quintin Hogg. The need for change in Parliament to meet the changing needs of a modern world, but the need for Parliament to be changeless in its concept and tradition.