Experts: Canada’s Effective Political Opposition

The primary axis in Canadian legislative politics has shifted, at least temporarily, in the years since the last federal election. In effect, the relationship that matters most at the moment is not the one between governing and opposition parties, but between the government in office and a series of loose coalitions of actors normally existing at the periphery of politics.

A significant segment of these coalitions normally remain not just non-partisan but in fact studiously apolitical. They enter the political arena only reluctantly, and do so only out of a sense of alarm at the implications following from particularly contentious and controversial legislation that appears destined to be passed without effective challenge within formal institutions of government—by which I mean both opposition parties and skeptical voices within the governing caucus. Once engaged, they rely on a combination of professional experience, positional authority, and scholarly research in order to support their arguments.

Call it revenge of the experts.

While C-23, the Fair Elections Act of 2014, stands out as the most important and successful example of opposition on the part of such a coalition, we are clearly in the midst of a second major stand by a similar but distinct such coalition against the perceived excesses of Bill C-51, the Antiterror Act, subjecting it to sustained critique on multiple fronts.

Even more interestingly, a poll released this week by Forum Research indicates support for the law hovers at 45%. As Vice reports, that is down from 82% support reported in an Angus-Reid survey back in February. While all caveats apply when speaking of a single poll, the sheer magnitude of the change is noteworthy. Half of all Canadians familiar with the bill now oppose it.

Simply put, a coalition of experts is once again holding its own against a majority government, one whose perceived advantages on issues of national security were so great that only one federal opposition party chose to oppose it.

Between C-51 and C-23, we are gaining a good sense of what an effective contemporary opposition coalition looks like. Other cases, notably in the 2010 fight to save the long-form census, illustrate examples in which a similar such coalition formed, but ultimately failed for some reason.

In both C-51 and C-23, opposition has extended far beyond what might be called “typical” activism; rather, both coalitions included a range of principled, non-partisan and evidence-based opinions. Many members are drawn from civil society, but I would argue the coalition as a whole is not synonymous with it. Key actors in both examples include academics working together in large groups, encompassing different disciplines and approaches; senior civil servants, both current and former; members of the legal profession; both partisan and non-partisan voices within what for lack of a better term I’ll call the country’s broader political class (I’m thinking here of everything from former stateswomen and men, to editorial boards and columnists, to anyone one might consider a politically oriented public intellectual); maximal indigenous leaders; and voices with strong bonafides within the country’s conservative movement who nonetheless choose to oppose specific government actions.

Beyond studiously resisting appearances of partisanship, such groups also have taken noticeable pains to note wherever possible ways in which their concerns might be addressed within the context of the government’s stated objectives. In short, the most important voices attempted to remain politically neutral, and sought to offer the government advice on how to implement its preferred agenda while taking into consideration co things like respect for human rights, the potential violations of the charter, and important elements of political convention within the Canadian context—particularly those associated with maintaining the integrity and legitimacy of the Canadian political system as a whole (e.g. aspects of C-23 that seemed to advantage the Conservatives during elections, and elements of C-51 that appear to constrain Canadians’ freedom of speech and ability to pursue legitimate-but-technically-illegal forms of dissent such as civil disobedience.)

Such actors worked alongside—though often taking pains to avoid association with—organizations and movements more traditionally associated with overt, often partisan opposition to a Conservative government, including labour groups, left leaning NGOs and think tanks, contemporary online activist networks, opposition political parties, and so on.

In the case of the Fair Election Act, opposition emerged slowly as individuals worked through a complex piece of legislation, eventually coalescing into a broad and robust coalition that included hundreds of academics, NGOs, conscientious current and former senior public servant, newspaper editorial boards, and even some members of the country’s broader conservative movement.

In C-51, a similar coalition emerged, one that also required considerable time to form. More than a hundred academics have signed an open letter building on arguments first advanced by law professors Craig Forcese and Kent Roach.

Newspaper editorial boards, a network of NGOs, and even some conservatives have called for the bill to be amended or scrapped. Conrad Black argues that alarm bells must sound over C-51’s abrogation of civil liberties. BC Premier Christy Clark has questioned whether the bill strikes the right balance between the protection of freedom and security. Former Conservative Senator Hugh Segal calls the lack of oversight a “flaw” in the bill.

Independent MP and former Conservative Brent Rathgeber opposes the bill both in terms of substance and its rushed passage through the House. He also says he’s heard vocal concerns from his constituents. Joe Clark joined three former Liberal Prime Ministers and five former Supreme Court justices to stress the need for a “robust and integrated accountability regime for Canada’s national security agencies.” The letter was also signed by a number of other senior officials, both partisan and non-partisan, including past privacy commissioners and former members of the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the body charged with reviewing CSIS activity.

Even past employees of CSIS have criticized the bill, including Reid Morgan, a former director of the service.

Active civil servants are speaking out as well. Canada’s current Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien, a non-partisan officer of Parliament, calls the bill “excessive” and a threat to Canadians’ privacy. The fact that he has been blocked from testifying to the House committee examining the bill suggests its proponents are aware of how powerful such opposition can be.

So just what going on here? I think there are a number of factors playing out simultaneously. One is the decline in the effectiveness of formal Canadian institutions, and another is the type of legislation coming forward, often overturning large segments of previously settled legislation in significant and indeed constitutionally dubious ways. (It is for this reason, as I’ve argued previously, that the Supreme Court of Canada is currently and wrongly being criticized as “activist;” in reality it is simply being kept busy responding to the fallout from a number of laws that constitute major departures from what had been until recently the constitutional status quo.

In a subsequent post, I’ll try to return to where I think this situation in particular is going, and then turn more generally to the types of laws that are vulnerable to such opposition coalitions, and why in the long run this is such an unhealthy situation for Canadian politics to be in. It probably won’t come out until I have another dissertation chapter (or two) done however, so maybe don’t hold your breath.

Feature photo credit Steven Dengler; edited by Jeffery Nichols via wikimedia.

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