The Oda Ado: Do the Liberals understand their job?

The great virtue of Canada’s political system is that it is dead simple

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Feschuk’s been having great sport with Bev Oda and the ridiculous answers being offered on her behalf to questions put to her in the House of Commons. He’s absolutely right – Baird’s behaviour is pathetic, and for us private citizens, incessant mockery is probably the best response. The bigger problem, though, is that the Opposition doesn’t seem to have any better ideas.

The great virtue of Canada’s political system is that it is dead simple. Members of political parties run in local elections. The one who gets the most votes wins the seat in parliament. In parliament, the party that can win the support of the majority of MPs gets to form a government. Government ministers are drawn from the membership of the House. The government stands as long as it retains the support of the House.

What this means is that the job of an MP is itself pretty frigging simple. The House of Commons has two main jobs: Make a government, and hold it to account. It does this Siskel & Ebert style, by giving thumbs up (offering support) or thumbs down (withdrawing confidence). Literally everything else a non-government MP does is either an embellishment of this function (e.g. sitting on committees) or a distraction from it (the much-vaunted “constituency work”). The key benefit of this simplicity is that it makes the lines of accountability crystal clear. The government does stuff, the rest of the House holds it to account. At election time, voters can decide how they feel about it.

The crucial element here is one of the most misunderstood aspects of our system —  notion of cabinet solidarity. Cabinet solidarity emerged as a device to prevent the King from engineering a favourable government by picking and choosing amongst his ministers. It became a defence mechanism: Cabinet said take us as a whole, or dismiss us as a whole, but don’t try to pick us off one at a time. With the full development of the Whig constitution, the line of responsibility flipped – instead of up to the Crown, it now flows down to the Commons (and then on to the voters). But cabinet solidarity remains as the fulcrum of the entire system of responsible government. The government stands or falls as a whole.

In a majority government, Cabinet solidarity is impregnable. In a minority situation, it puts the opposition in a bit of a bind. It has to decide whether the minister’s actions are so egregious that lack of confidence in the minister amounts to lack of confidence in the government as a whole.  And so while what has been going on during Question Period is, on the face of it, absurd, what the Tories are doing is impeccably constitutional. By extending the cloak of Cabinet solidarity to Bev Oda, what John Baird is telling the opposition is: You want to get rid of her? You’ll have to get rid of all of us.

So what have the Liberals done – have they threatened to bring down the government over Oda’s actions? Nope. Instead, they’ve spent the last few weeks engaging in exercises in stunt-opposition: the online petition,  the “Not” T-shirts. This is Degrassi High level politics, with the Liberals wielding the pathetic tools of impotent private citizens, as if the Loyal Opposition has no more powerful instruments at its disposal.

The Conservatives have made their position clear, and they’ve thrown it down. Michael Ignatieff and the Liberals have utterly failed to pick it up.