The Opposition should start thinking like an opposition

The state of our democracy is not encouraging. The Liberal "natural governing party" looked so tired at its convention that even its friends could wish we had an alternative government in waiting. Yet the Conservative Party is quite evidently unready to govern in practice. What is less appreciated is that bad ideas are at the root of its problems. The Tories' practical troubles were glaringly on display in the kerfuffle this week over the draft resolution (P-90) for their upcoming convention that would let MPs vote freely on moral issues. Some people, mostly within the party, think Stephen Harper has a cunning plan to make the party pro-abortion and pro-gay-marriage. Others, mostly in the media, think he has a cunning plan to shackle women barefoot and pregnant in the heteronormative kitchen.

He can hardly have both. But he could certainly have neither. And on the accumulated evidence of the last dozen years, wouldn't rational observers hesitate to attribute to this party any capacity for cunning plans? (Remember: The Tories had to abandon their plan to have only some MPs abstain on the budget because it was "too complicated.")

The Globe and Mail's editorial board sees a cunning plan to stifle divisive debate, hectoring on Thursday that: "The Conservatives are divided on these issues between moderates from its Progressive Conservative wing and conservatives from the old Canadian Alliance. Rather than paper over these differences, the party needs to hash them out and come up with some kind of consensus that it can present to voters at the next election." But why couldn't free votes on matters of conscience be precisely such a consensus? I would call it most unwise. But it's hardly impossible.

So let's drop our cynical obsession with tactics and weigh the possibility that there's a sincere and important, if confused, intellectual basis for this suddenly infamous resolution P-90. For instance, the party's loudly and incessantly proclaimed devotion to direct democracy. I don't care how many mainstream journalists can't understand "free vote" after 12 years covering the party. The point of P-90 is exactly what it seems to be: to establish that MPs may vote their consciences on moral issues.

I agree that it looks odd, because in one sense the proposition is trivially true: Nothing can legally constrain the votes of members of a Parliament, even on a confidence vote. And in a more restricted sense, MPs always have enormous freedom on anything but a money bill because the government can't threaten its backbenchers with defeat followed by an election in which they might lose their seats, and Opposition leaders can't threaten theirs with much of anything. And since "moral issues" normally means things that aren't money bills (improperly, in my view, since there are many wrong ways to spend half a billion dollars a day) P-90 is, operationally speaking, trivial. So why are the Tories so keen on it?

Well, look at their superficially bizarre, and quite unprecedented, decision to abstain on the budget. Its practical impact is to give the Liberal government power without accountability, reducing Parliament to a hollow shell. It seems an odd stance from a party that, in other contexts, deplores judicial encroachment on self-government. And it has made them a laughing stock, so if it was a cunning plan, it didn't work very well. But again, there's another possibility. Examine, if you will, the reasons they give.

They say "the Canadian public" doesn't want an election. They say "Canadians" want this Parliament to work. They say it is therefore the duty of all the parties to co-operate to make it work. And they say this stuff because they are populists who believe the job of all politicians is to represent "the people." Not to represent the particular people who voted for them (and who, in the case of the Tories, may safely be assumed to be appalled by this Liberal spending megablast). Nor to offer an alternative government to any particular people who may become unhappy with the current administration. So they don't. They don't act like a parliamentary opposition in practice because they don't think they should in theory. Exactly as if the way to know what they thought was to listen to what they said.

I find the concept of politicians seeking to embody the popular will a false and dangerous one. At the very least it further undermines the operations of a parliamentary system in ways I think we should be debating. But we can't.

Not until more people stop babbling about plans and plots and manoeuvres and start caring about ideas. The health of our democracy depends on it.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson