The Role of Opposition
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 21 Apr 1988, p. 338-351
Copps, Sheila, Speaker
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Item Type
Criticism as the principal function of the Opposition. The role of criticism, and the role of a vigorous Opposition in parliament. Opposition in an historical context. The legitimacy of adversarial politics as recognized by both Diefenbaker and Pearson. A look at the operation of party discipline. The speaker as a supporter of the party system in preference to the group system. The parliamentary system. A discussion of each system. Some remarks on aggressive Opposition. The free trade deal. Economic and social policy. An appeal to the audience to become involved in politics.
Date of Original
21 Apr 1988
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Full Text
Sheila Copps, Member of Parliament
April 21, 1988
Chairman: Ronald Goodall, President

Ronald Goodall

Throughout history, there have been men and women who have listened to the call to service and have risen to the challenge of their times; men and women who were not afraid of opposing a majority.

Boadicea, queen of the Iceni, suffered under Roman rule. Eventually, she led her English tribe in a revolt against the Roman invader. Boadicea organized her troops and reduced Roman London to ruins. Boadicea introduced a new weapon into warfare, a chariot with sword blades attached to the chariot wheels.

Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans, heard the voices of the saints and was placed at the head of French troops. Joan of Arc raised the siege of Orleans and enabled Charles VII to be crowned King of France.

Several hundred years later, in 1692, a 14-year-old girl led a band of four either elderly or very young people and defended a small fort on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. Madeleine de Vercheres held that fort for a week against a band of Iroquois attackers.

I must make it clear at this point, Madam, that I am not advocating that members of Parliament enter the House in a rather dangerous looking chariot with a cross and a musket in either hand! I am merely giving examples of some people who were not afraid of opposing a majority. There are others. Henry VIII also rose to the challenge of his times but I hesitate naming him before this audience.

I believe we have a speaker with us who is certainly not afraid of opposing a majority and could well be rising to the challenge of today. Sheila Maureen Copps was born and raised in Hamilton and educated at the universities of McMaster, Rouen in France and Western Ontario, graduating with an honours degree in languages.

She spent several years as a journalist with the Ottawa Citizen and Hamilton Spectator before entering the political arena on a full-time basis as a constituency assistant to the former Ontario Liberal Party leader, Dr. Stuart Smith.

Miss Copps entered the Ontario legislature in 1981 as the member for Hamilton Centre and entered the House of Commons in 1984 as the member for Hamilton East. In both institutions she has served as Opposition critic on health and welfare.

I hesitate again to mention the paternal as opposed to the maternal influence. But our speaker followed the example of her well-respected father by being ejected from the provincial legislature and by running for the leadership of the provincial Liberal Party. In 1982 she came in second after David Peterson. She is the first woman to record these two achievements.

Some of her colleagues in the House have not been too polite-she has been called a "titmouse" and told "Just quiet down, baby." The immediate response was the book Nobody's Baby published in 1986 as a guide to women and minorities who seek to improve their position. Our speaker has attracted a lot of media attention. Some comments are not so nice. According to the press, "Keeping Sheila Copps quiet is like trying to shut down a sawmill;' and she is "fast off the mark" in question period. Although identified some time ago as a member of the "Liberal rat pack," recent media comment appears to identify Miss Copps as a potential leader of the Liberal Party with the possibility of being Canada's first woman prime minister, our own Margaret Thatcher.

Miss Copps is married to Richard Marrero and they have one daughter, whose birth credited our speaker with yet another first, being the first member of Parliament to have a baby while in office.

Somehow or other, she has managed to spend time in community organizations such as Operation Lifeline, Injured Workers Legal Assistance Group and the Social Planning and Research Council.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Sheila Copps, member of Parliament, who will address us today on "The Role of Opposition."

Sheila Copps

Well, first of all, I'm extremely happy to be here. I wanted to talk to you originally about the role of women in Parliament and in legislatures and how few we are in number and how long it takes us to rise to the top, but I've just come back from Manitoba and I realize that that issue may in very short order become rather redundant. So, instead of talking about the somewhat clichéd view about the role of women in Parliament and legislature and how we are too few in number, I thought it might be appropriate to look at the role of the Opposition. And, of course, in doing some research on this extremely important topic, I came to discover that many former politicians of illustrious ilk on three sides of the House have actually spoken to The Empire Club on this issue-more specifically, John Diefenbaker spoke to The Empire Club on that particular issue in the '50s; Stanley Knowles has also spoken to The Empire Club on that issue; and Lester Pearson spoke to The Canadian Club-one of your competitors-on the same issue in 1959. One of the interesting things about the three illustrious gentlemen is that all of them chose to speak on the issue only when they were in Opposition and, somehow, when they found their way into government, the tune changed.

We may have seen a little bit of that over the last four years, where for many years we saw an extremely aggressive Opposition on the part of the Conservatives led by people like the renowned former minister, the Hon. Erik Nielsen, and yet somehow, when they changed from Opposition into government, the role of the Opposition became aggressive, heinous and detrimental to the democratic process.

Well, I'm here, in fact, to argue just the opposite. I didn't realize that I was actually going to have a former leader of the Opposition in two successive provincial governments in the person of the Hon. Edward Jolliffe here today. So really, plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose and I hope that he will be able to give me some pointers by the end of my speech.

All of us know that in government we have different interest groups that must be served. We have big labour, big capital, East versus West, big city versus small town, welfare versus lower taxes, etc., and government must continually, in the words of C.E.S. Franks, who wrote The Parliament of Canada, make a mix of trade-offs and compromises between these competing interests to ensure that the electorate, while never entirely satisfied, is satisfied enough that it will return the government to power.

So, on the one hand, in government we have consensus building. On the other hand, we have criticism-and criticism, I submit to you, is the principal function of the Opposition. Criticism will attempt to show that one group is being neglected while another group is favoured. It rarely involves compromise. The role of criticism shared by the Opposition is as old as democracy itself. If you go back to Aristotle's time, under Athenian rule, the essence of self-government was that citizens in their turn were both the rulers and the ruled. Government could alternate among different groups of citizens and the minority would seek to persuade the majority of its point of view by peaceful, political means.

A hallowed principle of our democratic tradition is that the minority accepts the right of the majority to make decisions, provided that there is reciprocal respect for the minority's right to dissent and I think that that's critical. And it's also important for us to maintain the distinction between parliamentary representative democracy and the sort of direct plebiscite or referendum appeal "to the people," which history shows can, in fact, be made incompatible with democracy, incompatible with the most authoritarian forms of government.

A vigorous Opposition in Parliament can be the chief bulwark against the establishment of a bureaucratic empire. The people do speak through Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, as well as the government, through backbenchers as well as cabinet ministers. Just as members of the Senate, that other place, are expected to act as a chamber of sober second thought, so too members of the Opposition in the lower house are called upon to act as a break on government haste and to see that diverse and opposing and often contradictory points of view have a chance to be aired and defended.

If you look back on some of the great parliamentarians of our century, you look at John Diefenbaker and here's what he had to say about Opposition about which he knew more than a little: "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. A reading of history proves that freedom always dies when criticism ends." His own alter ego and his competition during those years of parliamentary democracy, Lester Pearson, also understood full well the role of Opposition and he commented at one point about how he looked upon Mr. Diefenbaker and his stalwarts on the Opposition side of the House. "In national politics," he said in a speech to The Canadian Club on January 27th, 1959, "during the years when I was in government, l watched the Opposition perform their duty vigorously and industriously, with courage and determination." And this speaking about John Diefenbaker, "They rightly insisted on their right to oppose, attack and criticize, to engage in that cut and thrust of debate so often and strongly recommended by those concerned with the vigour and health of Parliament and the health of democracy. I cannot forebear to add, however, that the application of this procedure has in the past occasionally been resented by those who are cut and thrust at."

Both men, Diefenbaker and Pearson, obviously recognized the legitimacy of adversarial politics and of the right of the Opposition to use whatever legal means at its disposal to hold the government accountable.

In considering the role of the Opposition in our country, we must also look at the operation of party discipline. The fact that government members invariably are compelled to vote with the government, to vote on a party line basis, puts the onus of responsible government squarely on the shoulders of the Opposition. In a majority government situation, it is true that the Opposition will never be able to outvote the government on any policy proposal and, therefore, we must content ourselves with using other techniques to get our message across-techniques like debate and question period. Again, our basic parliamentary tradition has held that the very nature of debate should be adversarial, should be confrontational-a principle which is given substance by the structure of the chamber itself and the fact that in order for the debate to begin, the mace must be presented into the House.

The chamber is rectangular, it isn't round, it isn't sitting at a round table where you have nuances and shades of opinion. The setup of the rectangle, while in fact a historical accident, has been perpetuated by choice. Its most eloquent defence was actually offered by Winston Churchill at a time when the

British people were thinking of changing their parliament, when they were rebuilding following the damage done to the British House during the war. And according to Churchill, when discussion came forward about perhaps having a semicircular table, a semicircular chamber, Churchill said, "Its shape should be oblong and not semicircular." Here is a very potent factor in our political life. The semicircular assembly, just like the republican role of government which appeals to political theorists, enables every individual or every group to move around the centre, adopting various shades of pink as the weather changes.

I am a convinced supporter of the party system, in preference to the group system. The party system is very much favoured by the oblong form of the chamber. It is easy for an individual to move through those insensible gradations from left to right, but the act of crossing the floor is one which requires serious consideration. As Mr. Churchill said, "I am well informed on this matter, for I have accomplished that difficult process not only once, but twice. Logic is a poor guide compared with custom." So Winston Churchill believed that the rectangular chamber, in fact, lent itself to a parliamentary debate where you had the government and you had the Opposition and never the twain shall meet.

In a sense, in a parliamentary system, there are only two sides of every issue and a member is either for or against a motion. Shades of opinion-and you can talk about any issue, whether it be the trade issue, whether it be the sale of Air Canada-shades of opinion are forced into these two aggregations and there is no room for single-issue politics. The parties and the members win or lose on the basis of their total choices, policies and decisions.

You know, we've had much talk in the last few years about how we should move toward an American system and how it would be better if individual members were allowed to make a choice and vote on the basis of individual issues. Well, I would submit to you that the parliamentary system which holds cabinet accountable and which holds each political party accountable, in fact has led to the development of a democracy where we are not held hostage to single-interest groups. There are many people in this room who may not agree with the Liberal Party on every single issue, but in the overall balance of things, when election time comes, you must make a judgment on the basis of the overall thrust of party policies rather than picking a record of each member, examining their voting patterns and determining your vote accordingly.

So, I don't believe that a move to the American system or the so-called republicanization of the system would in any way assist the development of parliamentary democracy in Canada. Our own Parliament, looking fondly to the south, in fact, recently passed a series of parliamentary reforms. We often hear in the newspapers about the so-called "freedom" that is now afforded individual members. Well, to the political theoreticians, it sounds terrific. I want to tell you that in practical application, it's a lot of bunk. In fact, it's a sham and you only have to look at the record of political parties on the so-called private members' bills to examine that, in fact, the political parties are still voting on the basis of block patterns and there is still a party discipline attached even to a socalled private member's bill.

Bill C204 is the bill that was introduced, in fact, by a member of the New Democratic Party, and I sat on the committee that dealt with that bill. It dealt with regulations regarding smoking. Well, I want to tell you that it wasn't the great ideal of all of the members standing together and developing a private member's bill which will respond to the exigencies of the day. It was, in fact, party line, party whip, even to the point where when certain amendments were introduced, they were vetoed by various government departments before they were actually ever approved by the majority of Conservatives on the committee.

So, it's nice in theory to talk about parliamentary reform and the freedom of the individual member, but in a parliamentary democracy, the discipline of parties must prevail and the discipline of parties has made the strength of our democratic process in Canada far more palatable than what we've seen in the United States. The bottom line is still the cabinet and the bottom line is that the cabinet and the government must be held accountable for the decisions they make. But just as in any process, when the cabinet gets together, individuals within that cabinet may vehemently disagree on an issue. I would suggest to you that Mr. Wilson probably did not agree when in his wisdom the Prime Minister decided that he would name Montreal and Vancouver financial centres and somehow ignore the largest, most basic financial centre in the country of Canada. That was obviously a political decision, which I'm sure Mr. Wilson must have fought tooth and nail, but the fact is once the decision is made, he's part of that cabinet team-he must go out and defend that decision and defend it even in his own home town, although he knows it was politically motivated and had no sense or basis in terms of the financial community. That is the essence of democracy and the parties, win, lose, or draw, are represented to the people as a group-as a homogeneous group with perhaps shades of opinion, nuances, differences. I don't think anybody would believe that among all three parties there is a single view on the question of abortion. It is an extremely delicate issue and you will see people who are emotional and vehement on both sides of that very strong issue. I don't think you see a homogeneous view on the question of free trade. In all three parties, there are certainly nuances of position on the issue of Meech Lake. But the fact is, in a parliamentary democracy when the government comes forward with a program and when the cabinet comes forward with a program, the party members and the party representatives in Parliament must either support or oppose in the grand parliamentary traditions that were established by Winston Churchill.

1 think some people, probably in this audience, might argue that Opposition is too aggressive. Aggressive Opposition should stand aside and be replaced by a better parliamentary practice, decorum perhaps being more important than substance. Even the greatest parliamentarian of our century, Churchill himself, was not above setting aside parliamentary niceties to reap advantage and to get his political point across. Listen to his description of labourite Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald in 1931. Mr. Churchill said, " I remember when I was a child, being to the celebrated Barnum Circus which contained an exhibition of freaks and monstrosities, but the exhibit on the program which I most desired to see was one which was described as the boneless wonder. My parents judged that the spectacle would be too revolting and demoralizing for my youthful eyes and I have waited 50 years to see the boneless wonder sitting on the Treasury bench." When Churchill first crossed the floor in 1904 and joined the Liberals, he lost no time in ripping Prime Minister Balfour to shreds for not setting a date for general elections: "To continue an office for a few more weeks and months, there is no principle which the government is not prepared to betray and no quantity of dust and filth they are not prepared to eat." Churchill himself was, in fact, a thorn in the side of his own party. During his early days with the Conservatives, he quickly became a focus for the doubts and discontents of the more independent and adventurous spirits of the rank and file. He gathered round him a small parliamentary group nicknamed The Hooligans (plus ca change. . . ). This group provided lively and effective irritants and succeeded in making themselves thoroughly unpopular with the faithful and the front bench. Churchill was also the target of many an assault. When he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, he once for fun-I guess he probably did this on his nights off when he wasn't working in the House-he counted up with great relish the epithets tossed his way. The word robbery or robbed-speaking of Mr. Churchill-was used 67 times. Confiscation, 10. Plunder, 10. Steal, 3. He was called a marauder, a cat burglar and the artful dodger, and, to quote him, he says at one point, "the more exuberant members of the party opposite have for some years, at elections at any rate, been accustomed to salute me by the expression `murderer' and from that point of view, 'robber' is sort of a promotion. It shows I am making some headway in their esteem." Certainly, the historical roots of the role of Opposition have been well founded in the parliamentary system and I think if you look back to our role, in 1984, when as the Liberal Opposition a few 40 people were gathered in Parliament, there were those among us in the Liberal Party who, in fact, argued that our role of Opposition should be less than vocal, should be less than forceful and there was a small group among us extremely concerned by the statements and the threat of the third party that had already announced that it, in fact, was going to be the official Opposition. We developed strategy-a strategy where we set out in an extremely aggressive fashion to point out in a critical way the shortcomings of the government and to, in fact, embark on what at the time we characterized as "a search and destroy mission." And I must tell you that took some doing, because there were those among us, rejected and repudiated as we were by the voters in 1984, who said, "Well, we better sit tight, be quiet for a year or two. People don't want to hear from the Liberal Party:" But it was our fear and our belief that if we sat tight for '84 and '85 and into '86, that we would, in fact, become redundant and would be replaced by another party that was waiting in the wings. So, we had an aggressive and forceful Opposition. We have now reached the stage in our mandate where our job goes beyond simple opposition, because people are saying, "Fine. You've outlined the difficulties and the problems of the government. What would you see as the solution? What is your vision of Canada? How do you differ from the government in the context of the political systems of this country?"

And I'm not here to give you a long political speech. I'm sure that you will get those from other politicians who will address you from time to time. l am here to tell you that in the context of the last 31/2 years, there has emerged, in fact, an acute difference in the perception of our country between the Liberal Party and the current government and that is that as a party, we have always believed not only in the strong mix of the public in the private sector, but that there is a strong role for government to play in holding this country together no matter what the issue. Back in 1985, the federal government said it no longer had a role for housing, federal housing, social housing in this country. It gave that dossier off to the provinces in the area of social housing because it said, "You should deliver the service," and when you have thousands of people in major cities across this country who are homeless, it's time that there is a national policy for housing. It's unfortunate that the Conservatives have seen their role as simply giving that responsibility to the provinces. It started with social housing, when the federal government said it no longer wanted to play a role in the development of a national housing policy. It has continued. It has continued, in fact, with a number of legislative agendas which have diminished the role of a strong central government and have, in fact, threatened the very sovereignty of our country.

I don't want to spend a lot of time talking about the trade deal, but the federal government says it's simply a business deal. It's nothing more than two parties getting together and signing a contract and it refers quite often to the European Community and how well that has worked in Europe. Well, I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, I just came back from Europe and I had a chance to examine the European Community and what began as an economic agreement is now, in fact, moving in the direction of social policy where at this point in time, the European Economic Community establishes a uniform retirement rate for all its citizens and all its countries. It determines what laws are applicable in the area of women's rights. It says that if one country is operating in one fashion and another country is operating in another, that these laws must be brought together.

So, where economic policy begins, social policy flows from there and I've been one of those who believed that, as a country, we love our neighbour. We're not anti-American, but we believe that we have developed infrastructure which is a better reflection of helping the little person make it, and at the same time giving the individual an opportunity to compete-a better mix of the public in the private sector. I don't, as a woman, want to be put in a situation where I can lose my job simply because I've been pregnant and in the United States, there are many states in the nation which do not even offer simple job protection to women who are pregnant. There is no overall benefit of pregnancy leave for women in the United States. Is that the kind of social road that we want Canada to follow?

So, I'm asking you to look at whether this is simply an economic deal or whether it will lead to the integration and, in fact, absorption of our great country by our neighbour to the south. I have those concerns. I have those fears. Our party has those fears. And when we've looked at the deal-when you start from a bad foundation, you don't rebuild using a poor foundation. If it's a poor foundation, you replace the foundation and you begin from scratch and that's the proposition that we're making to the people of Canada in respect of this particular trade deal.

There is a different view of Canada by the two political parties that both have a chance of returning to government and, I think, as a Liberal who has fought long and hard for social programs for the kind of infrastructure that says yes; let's provide opportunity; let's provide incentive. As we've seen in the first mandate of the majority Liberal government in Ontario, there is a place for the entrepreneur. There is a place for the business person. But there is also a place for the kind of caring community that we have established in Canada and I see my role in Opposition as being an opportunity to highlight on a day-today basis where the government is not holding true to principles of liberalism, where the government is not standing up for the little person, where the government is palming off responsibility for a national housing program onto the provinces. That's fine for Ontario. We live in an extremely rich province. We can afford to deliver housing services that are going to meet the needs of our citizens, but what happens if you're in Newfoundland.

Newfoundland should never by rights have existed, but it existed because a former prime minister had a dream of bringing this country together, east and west. We, in fact, defied all the logic. We should be trading north and south. We defied all the logic and we built a country on a dream and we built a country on a parliamentary democracy which in and of itself is completely different from the kind of republican congressional system that has been established in the United States. I don't see a move to the congressional system as being good for Parliament. l don't see a move to the economic union as being good for Canada and I would submit to you that the only way we're going to be able to get off this train is by making a change in the next election and I'd like to just launch one last challenge to you.

There are many people in this room who have been involved in the political process with the political party of their choice, but who have not stood for office. And you may be sitting down there with a six-figure salary and very happy home life. You don't want to make the sacrifice. Well, just as I have a right to criticize as a member of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, so I would submit to you to really bring your criticism of government policy or Opposition policy to fruition, you should stand for public office and take up the challenge yourselves because democracy is only the sum of the people who choose to take part and if you stand on the sidelines, happy and content in your successful business and not wanting to rock the boat or make the kinds of family sacrifices required by people in all political parties, then you deserve the government you get. But if you believe that change is necessary and changes wrought by criticism from Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition and by emergence of community leaders who stand for public office, then I urge you, there's an election coming in short order. Get up from your warm seat, stand up from the sidelines, stop being a spectator, get involved, run for office, and then the kind of views that you represent will truly become part of the cultural and political fabric of our country. Otherwise, if you're merely standing on the sidelines, then you deserve the government that you get. Thank you very much.

The appreciation of the audience was expressed by Edward B. Jolliffe, a Past President of The Club.

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The Role of Opposition

Criticism as the principal function of the Opposition. The role of criticism, and the role of a vigorous Opposition in parliament. Opposition in an historical context. The legitimacy of adversarial politics as recognized by both Diefenbaker and Pearson. A look at the operation of party discipline. The speaker as a supporter of the party system in preference to the group system. The parliamentary system. A discussion of each system. Some remarks on aggressive Opposition. The free trade deal. Economic and social policy. An appeal to the audience to become involved in politics.