Bob Plamondon is the author of Blue Thunder: The Truth about Conservatives from Macdonald to Harper.
Throughout Canada’s history, parliamentarians have understood their role in a crisis. They have inspired confidence, given voice to the people and made decisions in the national interest.
At the outset of the First World War, it took Canada just four days to pass the War Measures Act. On the night of Feb. 13, 1916, a fire of unknown origin engulfed the Parliament buildings, killing eight people, including a Liberal MP. The House of Commons met the next day at the Victoria Memorial Museum. When Canadians went to the polls during wartime in 1917 and 1940, they did not see it as a misplaced effort: It was a demonstration of the values our soldiers were fighting for.
And in times of crisis, the opposition’s role is to contribute to the effectiveness of government. Recall it was opposition British MPs in 1940 who played an essential role in making Winston Churchill prime minister.
In recent days, however, several Conservative leadership candidates – Erin O’Toole, Marilyn Gladu, Rudy Husny and Derek Sloan – have proposed delaying the vote of party members to select the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition because of the novel coronavirus crisis. But rather than put the contest on hold, Conservatives should act with certainty and purpose to allow Parliament to function as it was intended. We say that, in a crisis, leadership is critical. So what justifies having an interim leader of the opposition when there is a mechanism in place to provide a permanent replacement?
There is no health-related reason for why the rules need to be changed. Just as many Canadians are doing their jobs remotely, so can political leaders and campaigners. The Conservative Party is facilitating virtual town-hall meetings and leadership debates that will be convened without an audience present. Voting can take place without anyone having to leave the safety of their homes.
Canadians should not assume that calls by Conservative leadership candidates to change the rules are acts of statesmanship, either. Indeed, those who have advocated a pause of the race are tweeting madly and producing videos to convince party members of the nobility of their actions. They would likely have taken a different view of the process if they were confident they would win.
It’s not for the players on the ice to ask the referees to change the rules in the middle of the second period. That power belongs to the party’s leadership election organizing committee. It is their job to run a clean contest and allow party members to put a duly elected leader of the opposition in place without delay. They chose June 27 as the day to elect a new leader because they thought it was best for the party and the country. That committee should not accept the proposition that in times of crisis democracy is an inconvenience.
We saw this week that the democratic role of the opposition is especially important. This was evident when the government sought unchecked taxation powers in an early draft of its emergency legislation. The opposition also needs to bring to Parliament the concerns of the people of Alberta and Saskatchewan, where the government holds no seats.
And there are blind spots in the government’s approach where the opposition could play a critical role. For instance, while much financial relief is coming for individuals devastated by the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of small businesses have had to shutter either because of mandatory provincial order or because there is no business to be had. What has been proposed to date – through liquidity and other measures – is a pittance compared with packages in the United States and the United Kingdom. While employment insurance helps reduce payrolls, service businesses that have ceased operating still have expenses to pay. Deferrals on income tax mean nothing when there are no profits. The country can’t afford to let these employers permanently vanish. The record shows that Conservatives get small business in ways that Liberals do not.
As the government-in-waiting, the opposition must be at the ready, and given the nature of minority parliaments, no one can predict when an election will come; a permanent leader is vital to this process. And with a need to get big things done quickly in Canada, the productive differences between parties will be even more useful, led by people who can be constructive today as well as forward-looking.
Millions of Canadians are continuing to work to keep our country safe – and they are true heroes. But certain essential actions require the power and resources that only our national government can deliver. That’s why we need clear and decisive leadership from our Prime Minister – and a permanent leader of the opposition.
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