The Formal Meaning of Opposition

Opposition has both a general and a specific formal meaning. The Latin root is ponere to place and opponere to place in front of. In its general sense the opposition are those placed in front of a group or individual blocking movement.

In the Westminster parliamentary form of government, the Opposition, formally Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, are the Members of Parliament who sit opposite the Treasury Bench (composed of the Cabinet). Their role is to block the passage of bills of expenditure until the House of Commons has had a chance to examine them, usually in committee, and to vote on them at three stages of being read aloud in the chamber. That the members of the chamber are elected makes the procedure the product of democracy. The will of the people is expressed as indirectly.

When Winston Churchill in 1947 said that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others,” he likely had in mind parliamentary democracy, but his focus was on the essence of democracy, “the little man with the little pencil,” rather than its forms. It matters little that Common Law differs from Civil Law, if the result is seen as justice. The same is true about the differences between parliamentary and presidential government, if democracy prevails. Still, parliamentary democracy has some unique features.

Off the top, as Walter Bagehot pointed out, parliamentary democracy separates the “ceremonial” from the “effective,” rather neatly. The arrangement allows for a final check on the executive far more easily wielded than impeachment. Alleged abuses may happen (Gough Whitlam episode in Australia 1975 and King-Byng Affair in Canada 1926), but rarely do.

Further, Bagehot noted, that Parliament has no separation of legislative and executive powers.  If the PM has the confidence of the House, he or she may pass all manner of legislation. In America, the President proposes, and the Congress disposes.  However, as my old colleague Professor Ian Brodie points out in his new book (shameless plug) At the Centre of Government: The Prime Minister and the Limits on Political Power, a PM faces many restraints in the House.  The opportunity for swift resolution rarely escapes rigorous accountability.  Accountability is the working principle of a parliamentary system and a process essential to democratic government.

The face of accountability in a Westminster system is the formal Opposition. It is why the Leader of the Opposition is a member of the Queen’s Privy Council and may request a personal audience with her during a State Visit.

St. Augustine wrote that evil is the absence of God.  By the same measure, corruption is the absence of accountability. Key is political accountability. Government safeguards fail because political safeguards fail. Political accountability comes into force through formal and informal means: the primacy of confidence of the House, the collective responsibility of the Cabinet, detailed and enforced procedures, impartiality of the Speaker, a protocol for “conscience” votes, and the power of the Public Accounts Committee to compel witnesses and produce documents.

Often overlooked in discussing political accountability is the role of the political parties.  Perhaps unloved, parties play the vital role of transforming factions into force, and coalitions into governments. Parties in a parliamentary system have institutionalized written platforms and stated mandate questions. These features inform the public and hold governments to scrutiny.

“You cannot choose between party government and Parliamentary government. I say you can have no Parliamentary government if you have no party government; and therefore, when gentlemen denounce party government, they strike at the scheme of government which, in my opinion, has made this country great, and which, I hope, will keep it great.” Benjamin Disraeli,

Nothing unsavoury can be construed by opposition to the government. The modern tendency is to exalt the state as a force for progress. So it may be, but the government of the day is not the state personified. The government of the day are the men and women entrusted for the moment by the people to guide the awesome powers of the state.

The people’s trust is rarely absolute. The people elect the Opposition to look make sure the Government is looking after just the people’s interest. The Crown too depends upon the watchful eye of the Official and Loyal Opposition.

To aid the Opposition needs no apology.

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