Government and opposition, as theatrical roles

The other day, I watched a Parliamentary committee.

It was depressingly predictable. The opposition MPs accused the civil servants appearing before the committee of being wasteful, or being slow and inefficient, and of being hijacked by the government’s political agenda. The government MPs defended their own choices as good for Canadians, and certainly more impressive than anything opposition MPs did while in power.

If there was an election and the position of the parties was inverted, these people would just need to cross the floor and trade speaking notes. There is no real dialogue here, just the performance of previously defined and superficial roles.

I suppose that is all in keeping with my theory of democracy as constraint – a theory based primarily around very low expectations for politicians. Perhaps we cannot really hope to control what politicians do once they are in power, by listening to what they say before elections and selecting one lot rather than another. Perhaps all we can do is force that floor-crossing, note-trading exercise to take place before one particular group becomes hopelessly compromised and corrupt.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

9 thoughts on “Government and opposition, as theatrical roles”

  1. Unfortunately, if we feel that we cannot control what politicians do or even expect them to stick to their pre-election promises, than the whole process is a farce and we vote for an illusion. Once people realize that their represented officials are not representing them or even trying to be on their side, they retreat into apathy giving those same politicians complete freedom to engage in their pompous and shallow theatrics.

  2. I find the theatrics of Canadian politics disappointing.

    Why is it that an idea promoted by the government is usually simply opposed by the opposition and the an idea proposed by the opposition is simply opposed by the government?

    Why is it that a MP must support his party’s stance and oppose that of the opposing party?

    These assumptions are contrary to how best decisions are made.

  3. A more generous way to look at these dynamics is to say that the government and opposition are a bit like the defence and the prosecution in a criminal trial. The sort of arguments they make are very predictable, and both have clear biases. That being said, provided they are embedded in the right sort of system, there is reason to hope these theatrical interactions will produce an appropriate result.

  4. Despite lots of pointless bickering, democracies can achieve valuable feats of political progress.

    Look at the expansion of voting to women and minorities, decriminalization of homosexuality, the peaceful end of some empires, etc.

    You cannot say that politicians never achieve good things.

  5. The only people it makes sense to blame for the lousy-ness of Canadian democracy is ourselves. Democracy means we can participate in the political process – but we can’t participate as individuals. The two choices are active participation in party politics, or active participation in groups which lobby parties through conventional or unconventional means.

    I’m currently staying with my friend Mary Friel in Belfast, and she is actively engaged in lobbying against fox hunting and other cruel sports in the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland. It’s not an easy task – the newly formed alliance of Conservative and Liberal Democrats may repeal the Hunting Act and make fox hunting effectively legal again, but there is no use complaining about it in a way that doesn’t exert pressure on politiciens.

    I think that in general, “purity” is the worst idea the left has ever had – because it encourages disengagement from our imperfect political processes. It’s easy to say that the oppression of the Palestinian people is Obama’s fault for supporting Israeli exceptionalism – and it is. But politiciens in democratic countries are forced to submit to the popular will of the electorate in extreme circumstances. It’s not irrelevant that Canadian MPs get 100 times as many letters from pro-Israeli citizens and lobby groups than they do from those who oppose all forms of state terrorism in the middle east.

  6. Seeing double in Ottawa

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

    If you stick around long enough, the differences between governments seem to fade.

    Is it the eyes failing? Or are the differences not quite as stark as the parties paint them?

    Of course, the Conservatives pretend that the difference is like night and day — and so do the Liberals. Their government: the devil’s work! Our government: manna from heaven! There’s no resemblance!

    But it’s hard to see the diff when you’re seeing double.

    That’s what happened when the cannons roared anew over the alleged wickedness of the CBC. As the Conservative government launched another broadside at the supposed Liberal bias of the Mother Corp, the Globe and Mail found itself in need of a picture for its story. How to illustrate a boring press release and grab some eyeballs for the Globe website?

    A cunning editor found the solution: Brian Gable’s deft cartoon of a Darth Vader figure in a CBC News studio, stamping scripts as “defensible” or “indefensible” while telling the anchorman, “Please, just carry on as if I weren’t here.

    That cartoon was so good, they used it twice. And they didn’t have to change a thing. But greybeards at the CBC recognized it.

    First published on Nov. 13, 1998, the cartoon originally lampooned the Chrétien government’s attacks on the Liberals’ supposed enemies at, yes, the CBC. Reduce, re-use, recycle: the Globe goes green!

    This kind of flashback makes it easier to remember, now that the CBC is being damned as a Liberal propaganda machine, that the Liberals in their day were equally incensed that it was, apparently, an anti-Liberal propaganda machine. We were “biassed,” the Chretien PMO alleged, in an unfortunate piece of spelling, and we were “conspiring” against the Liberal government.

  7. Perhaps there may once have been this great tension between Harper In Reality and the Harper Who May Exist in Theory, wrestling with each other over every great decision. Probably it was a struggle, jettisoning long-held convictions for short-term political gain—the first couple of times. But after the 50th or 60th time I can’t imagine he even notices. So we should stop pretending he does: stop crediting the Tories with scruples they show no outward sign of possessing.

    It’s not as if this is anything new, after all. The Tories have been signalling their disdain for principled politics for—well, since their founding, or indeed before. The lesson the party’s leadership drew from the Reform-Alliance experience was not that these parties had been undisciplined or ill-led, but that they had been too radical, too honest, too principled. And the lesson they had absorbed from the Liberals’ success was the corollary. So: make no promises, if you can, or if you must make some, do not be bound by them, or indeed by anything else. And now we have two such parties.

    The consequence of all this realpolitik, oddly, is more or less to make politics extinct in this country, or at least redundant. The forms are maintained, the rituals are observed, but without purpose or urgency, the kind that motivates activists and inspires voters. To be perfectly clear: absolutely nothing is at stake in Canadian politics. There is no clash of visions, no conflict of values, because neither party has any. Nothing is riding, therefore, on the outcome of any election. It simply does not matter who wins.

    Well, it does, but not in any way that is relevant to the voter: that is, whatever policies a given party or leader might enact after the election, in response to whatever random events or pressure groups, they must remain an impenetrable mystery before the election, or indeed at any time until the moment they are enacted. The analogy here would be with the stock market: it obviously matters what stocks you own, but you’ve no way of knowing how they will perform in advance. You might as well pick them at random. Likewise, I defy anyone to predict what the Conservatives—or Liberals—would do on any given issue. Certainly nothing they say or do beforehand should be taken as evidence of anything. Therefore no one who is not actually paid to follow politics should pay it any serious attention. It is not worth your time, except as a diversion.

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