What Difference Do Effective Democratic Legislators Make?

Part III followed by Analysis from the Director, Owen Lippert

Stephen C. Woodworth, J.D., M.A.P.*

Stephen C. Woodworth,

Juris Doctor, Master of Applied Politics

ORCID https://orcid.org/0000-0001-9726-8983



When I began this series I promised to examine some questions of interest to Opposition International, but from a slightly different perspective which addressed those who aren’t in opposition but, rather, who are members of political parties which occupy executive offices of government. I offered to illuminate what I believe to be matters of mutual interest to legislators both within opposition parties and within parties holding executive control.

​I described in Part I my concerns about recent democratic backsliding in my country, Canada. I then in Part II offered my perspective, as an academic and a former legislator, on how democratic practices and institutions work through the role of legislators. In this segment I’ll elaborate on the importance and implications of these democratic foundations for both opposition legislators and legislators belonging to the party which controls the governing executive.



​I’ll answer this question by returning to the example of Canada. That impairment of Canadian legislative performance and function during the Covid pandemic found by my unpublished study was followed, not long afterward, by substantial public demonstrations by unusually large numbers of citizens across the country protesting, as an unacceptable overreach, government public health measures adopted during the pandemic was no surprise to me. The Government’s controversially response to these non-violent protests against its policies by temporarily suspending certain civil liberties usingthe special power of the Emergencies Act also wasn’t too surprising, almost a textbook case.

    It is not unreasonable to draw a line from the impairment of legislative performance and function,  through the consequent loss of democratic legitimacy enjoyed by contemporaneously imposed public health measures, to public unrest followed bythe suspension of civil liberties. At least one study, referring to complaints “throughout the pandemic, that governments failed to adequately disclose information and reasons underlying pandemic responses,” has suggested that “this information void undermined public trust and undercut compliance with public health measures” (Khoury et al, 2022, Governments’ accountability for Canada’s pandemic response. Journal of Public Health Policy, 43(2), pages 229-230).  

    To put the matter in the terms described by Davenport (2007, State Repression and the Tyrannical Peace. Journal of Peace Research, 44(4)), the impairment of legislators’ representational and policy-influencing function likely increased the political discretion wielded by authorities, reduced the capacity of citizens to punish authorities for undesirable activity, increased the willingness of the executive branch to engage in repressive behaviour, and reduced alternate mechanisms to influence society, tending toward failure to sustain the threshold of domestic democratic peace and increasing the scope for repression.

​All of this is entirely apart from the likelihood that legislative integration of diverse perspectives would have led to better quality collective outcomes than processes with more limited inputs. To put it colloquially, the cream will always rise to the top if permitted to do so.

​In reaching these conclusions, we should avoid over-simplification. Other features can and do play a role in maintaining and preserving domestic democratic peace and in achieving good outcomes. Context remains king! That said, the importance to democratic collective decision-making of effective legislators cannot be over-stated, 



​Party loyalty has an important part to play in a legislature. Political alliances designed to pursue agreed policy initiatives can be entirely consistent with the democratic foundations of legislatures. Inevitably, party alliances propose differing policy solutions. The messy business of resolving policy disputes is not a reason to recoil from democratic practices and institutions, but quite the opposite – it is in fact their lifeblood, their raison d’etre. 

​That said, I defy anyone to convincingly demonstrate that the democratic foundations described in my last segment are not the mutual concern of both opposition and “government” legislators! In fact, when any legislator acts as if those democratic foundations are not their chief concern they are abandoning the duties of their role! 

​Every legislator – whether opposition or “government” – has the identical paramount duty, namely, to employ their office to achieve the solidarity and legitimization of social integration of a differentiated society through the self-governance of collective will-formation which reconciles individual autonomy with collective autonomy through the instrumentality of an administrative state vested with the power of positive law (that same large but pivotal mouthful!).

​As a very minimum, that includes the duty to safeguard the ability of all legislators, from every party, to articulate collective citizen preferences, to ensure responsiveness by holding the executive branch accountable for implementation and administration of enactments which conform to those collective citizen preferences and, where necessary, to constrain executives which fail to respond to citizen preferences. Democratic legislators who surrender or diminish their own capacity, or the capacity of their colleagues, to perform those functions betray the trust invested in them by their electors. Rather than being excused for that surrender or impairment when it is urged upon them by party leaders who control executive offices, they are doubly culpable for increasing executive dominance over their legislature.

​To put it differently, members of “government” parties have as much interest as opposition members in legislatively instructing their government, and in holding their government accountable to fulfill legislative instruction. If they fail to do so, they reduce their role to being  “mere banner-carriers, whose only purpose is to fill the blank space on the election ballot beside the party name” (Reid, Scott. 2020 (March 24). “Why I Am in the House Today,” pages 7-8).

​Ironically, one major difference between opposition party members and “government” party members is that the closer affiliation of “government” legislators with members of the executive branch actually offers greater opportunity to exert influence over the executive than is available to opposition party members. Such opportunities include being invested with greater trust from executive members, possessing more frequent, closer, access to executive members, and the ability to constrain executive members through party discipline (among other things).

​Of course, the reality is that the executive branches of some governments dominate their legislators to a greater degree than others. Put differently, some legislatures submit to greater executive domination than others. Also, there are greater pressures placed on “government” legislators than on opposition members to submit to executive domination, ranging from preserving the mirror image of the trust, access, and party discipline mentioned above to the granting of the executive spoils of substantial advancement and influence to purchase cooperation, none of which can be as heavily laid upon opposition members.

​In a democracy, the only thing standing in the way of those pressures is the integrity of the legislator’s commitment to their democratic duty, at least for those who know their duty.


​As a former legislator, I am sympathetic to the desire of party members to present a unified public front. On occasion, knowing that I took my democratic responsibilities very seriously, a constituent affiliated with another party would suggest to me that I should take public issue with the policies of my party or its leaders. I would jokingly reply that to do so would be like going on national television to tell my loved one to lose some weight. With a single exception, I never felt it necessary to inflict such damage on my relationships with others in my party. It almost always seemed equally possible to express my policy misgivings in private. 

​Also, there’s nothing inherently undemocratic about giving the benefit of the doubt in supporting the policy decisions of one’s party or party leader where one’s own expertise falls short of providing certainty even after due diligence, as it often does given the breadth of issues a legislator must consider.

​Some legislative functions are inherently public, most notably voting and delivering speeches. No one in my party ever insisted I make any public statement with which I did not agree, but if they had I hope I would have had the integrity to resist such deception.

​While there is always considerable persuasion brought to bear to vote the party line, with denial of optional perks sometimes in the balance, and while I often gave the benefit of the doubt to my party policy in uncertain cases, no one in my party ever tried to dictate that I should vote for any measure against my will. In fact, I once sought and obtained my party leader’s blessing to abstain from a confidence measure budget vote which included a policy I found absolutely unacceptable. I never faced a situation where my single vote could defeat a measure proposed by my party, and so I never had need to publicly vote against such measure. On the other hand, I occasionally voted in favour of measures proposed by those in other parties in opposition to my own party’s recommendation to oppose them.

​On a single occasion I publicly opposed a policy pursuedby my party’s leaders, when the opportunity for private resolution was unavailable. Importantly, it concerned an attempt to increase executive dominance over legislators by party leaders, giving party leaders a veto over which legislators would be permitted to make statements in the legislative chamber. When a colleague challenged that attempted veto as an undemocratic assault on the ability of legislators to perform their proper democratic function, I delivered remarks in support of his position. At least a dozen members of my own party similarly challenged our party leaders on that occasion although, oddly (to me), no member of any other party joined us. We were successful in the resulting ruling.

​I’ve briefly described here some of the strategies I employed as a legislator because at the time I was in fact a “government” legislator. The strategies I adopted to fulfill my duties as an effective democratic legislator are equally available to other “government” legislators (in many, if not most, cases). In particular, the informal and private influence of “government” legislators can be a valuable weapon in protecting the democratic foundations of a legislature in the hands of an elected representative with integrity.


​In the final analysis, the fate of any democracy rests in the hands of all legislators, representatives entrusted by their constituents through electoral processes to ensure “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Conversely, when democratic practices and institutions fail to advance or, worse, when they backslide those same representatives are culpably responsible for the corresponding loss of domestic democratic peace – and it doesn’t matter whether they are opposition legislators or “government” legislators.

​Civil society must encourage, support, and even insist upon, acceptance of that responsibility by every legislator and upon a commitment from every legislator to democratic practices and institutions, placed above their own personal or partisan interests and preferences. Civil society must place as many related tools and as much relevant training as possible in the hands of every elected legislators, whatever party they may support.

​That said, the provision of tools and training for opposition legislators is an excellent initiative. I commend Opposition International for its dedicated efforts.

My Analysis: Owen Lippert

Thank You, Stephen, for sharing your essay with me and the readers of Opposition International. It is a very interesting and insightful piece of writing that explores the challenges and opportunities of democratic representation and party loyalty in Canada. Your perspective as a former legislator and an academic brings a new understanding to the role of legislators is crucial for maintaining and enhancing democratic principles and practices.

You raise a very important question at the end of your essay: Can we square democratic representation with party loyalty? This is a question that many scholars, politicians, and citizens have grappled with, especially in the context of increasing polarization and partisanship in many democracies. There is no easy or definitive answer to this question, but I can share some of the arguments and evidence that I have found in my web search.

One argument is that democratic representation and party loyalty are not necessarily incompatible, but rather complementary. According to this view, parties are essential for aggregating and articulating the interests and preferences of diverse groups of citizens, providing them with a clear and coherent choice of policies and candidates, and facilitating accountability and responsiveness of the government. Parties also help to organize and coordinate the work of legislators, enabling them to overcome collective action problems and achieve policy goals. Therefore, party loyalty can be seen as a way of fulfilling one’s democratic duty as a representative of a certain constituency or ideology, as well as a means of advancing the public interest through effective governance. This argument is supported by some empirical studies that show that party discipline can enhance legislative productivity, policy stability, and voter satisfaction (e.g., Carey, 20071; Huber & Martinez-Gallardo, 20082; Bowler et al., 20163).

Another argument is that democratic representation and party loyalty are often in conflict, and that the latter undermines the former. According to this view, parties are detrimental for democracy because they constrain the autonomy and diversity of legislators, preventing them from expressing their own views or responding to the changing needs and preferences of their constituents. Parties also create incentives for legislators to prioritize partisan interests over public interests, leading to polarization, gridlock, corruption, and populism. Therefore, party loyalty can be seen as a betrayal of one’s democratic mandate as a representative of the people, as well as an obstacle to achieving good outcomes for society. This argument is supported by some empirical studies that show that party discipline can reduce legislative deliberation, policy innovation, and voter turnout (e.g., Kam, 20094; Tsebelis & Money, 19975; Norris et al., 2019).

As you can see, there are different ways of approaching this question, depending on one’s theoretical assumptions, empirical evidence, normative preferences, and contextual factors. I think that the best way to address this question is to acknowledge the trade-offs and tensions involved in balancing democratic representation and party loyalty, and to seek ways of mitigating the negative effects and enhancing the positive effects of both. For example, some possible reforms or innovations that could improve the quality of democracy in Canada are:

These are just some examples of possible ways to square democratic representation with party loyalty in Canada. Of course, there may be other options or challenges that you and I have not considered.

I would love to hear the thoughts of our readers on this question. What do you think are the main advantages and disadvantages of party loyalty for democracy? How do you think Canada could improve its democratic performance and function? What are some examples of best practices or lessons learned from other countries?

Owen Lippert