John G. Diefenbaker once said:
"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. The reading of history proves that freedom always dies when criticism ends. It upholds and maintains the rights of minorities against majorities. It must be vigilant against oppression and unjust invasions by the Cabinet of the rights of the people. It should supervise all expenditures and prevent over-expenditure by exposing to the light of public opinion wasteful expenditures or worse. It finds fault; it suggests amendments; it asks questions and elicits information; it arouses, educates and molds public opinion by voice and vote. It must scrutinize every action by the government and in doing so prevents the short-cuts through democratic procedure that governments like to make."
That is a heavy burden for a small band of dispirited parliamentarians, licking wounds from losing the last election, to undertake. However, it is their obligation and their only route to, hopefully, form a government of their own in time.
The fearlessness that Diefenbaker calls for was on display this week during debate over the McGuinty government's Green Energy Act.
Some of the concerns raised are serious. Higher energy prices are painful for those on a fixed income, as is any inflationary pressure. The value-added nature of the jobs in green energy envisioned may not be as high as the auto jobs we are losing. The 50,000 new jobs figure itself - like all estimates - is debatable.
But rather than follow up these perfectly legitimate avenues of weakness, the Progressive Conservative opposition is focusing on home energy audits.
Under the Act, there will need to have been an energy audit of a home at some point prior to its next sale. These have been valued in the media at $300, although the one I got was $150 after the rebate.
Rob Silver - as an acknowledged expert in the politics of energy - provides a cogent analysis of the vacuous criticisms waged against these audits from a policy perspective, and I can do no better.
But, while I provide no additional policy arguments, I stand baffled by the politics of the Ontario PC Party railing against these audits when the exact same policy was in their 2007 election manifesto.
Right there on page 48 of John Tory's platform, he pledges:
Requiring home energy audits before every sale of a house - so that the market will reward homes which are energy efficient. This will be a signal to homeowners that they will get a return on the energy investments in their homes.
When this contradiction was raised in the Legislature today, the Conservative response was: "That was then and this is now."
There may be the smallest crack of light in arguing that the platform was produced prior to a recession, and present circumstances demand minimizing new costs on overstretched consumers.
However, mandatory home energy audits were brought to the Legislature as a Liberal MPP's private member's bill four months ago.
The Conservatives passed the bill into law, along with the other two parties.
Four months ago. That's well after the market collapse and beginning of the recession.
I've been in opposition. It's hard. Your constitutional obligation is to criticize the government's agenda, and that does require a degree of intellectual flexibility. That flexibility is healthy and, as Diefenbaker stated, required if an opposition party is to check the power of the executive.
But when given a choice of all the elements of this massive piece of legislation to oppose, deciding on the exact same one you heretofore advocated is dim.
Diefenbaker's demanded fearlessness must be set against a different measure for those facing the Treasury Bench, defined best by another great Parliamentarian, Stanley Knowles:
"The opposition should so conduct itself in Parliament as to persuade the people of the country that it could be an improvement on the government of the day."