At times in this fractious minority House, Ottawa seems lost in its petty games of incessant and gratuitous insults, personal attacks and putdowns.

The winter-spring parliamentary session that paused in mid-June for the summer break was remarkable for its intense partisanship, minimal progress on the government’s legislative agenda and loud controversies over relatively minor issues that ultimately went nowhere. While some important bills were passed in the dying hours of the session, the media was united in condemning the downright personal nastiness and disharmony of the Commons.

The session never really escaped its controversial beginning: the unfortunate decision by the government to prorogue Parliament until after the Winter Olympics. The move caught fire unexpectedly in the public mind and hurt the government’s reputation unnecessarily. While the government obviously suffered all of the damage resulting from prorogation, the opposition parties did little better in attempting to capitalize on a number of high-profile government “scandals” that received much more coverage than any legislative proposal or policy initiative:

  • First up were the opposition attacks on the “delays” in getting the stimulus spending out the door, followed closely by complaints over Conservative “overspending” on advertising to prove that the stimulus dollars were indeed flowing. Since the first allegation led directly to the government defending itself with an extensive public information blitz, the two sides ultimately played to a draw.
  • The next big issue was the implementation of the H1N1 immunization program. Because delivery of the program was shared among all three levels of government, there was enough blame to go around for the haphazard rollout, but just when the issue was beginning to bite, it became obvious that there never really was a pandemic, so the controversy died.
  • The government then stumbled into the G8 maternal and child health initiative by not anticipating the abortion issue. Fortunately for the Conservatives, Michael Ignatieff forgot that he also had an anti-abortion group in his caucus and in his attempt to embarrass the Conservatives with a vote in the Commons, he managed to blow himself up instead.
  • Next came the Jaffer-Guergis fiasco, which generated far more heat than light. In the end, both players in the melodrama hurt themselves more than they damaged the government, but yet again, parliamentarians both past and present were cast in a less than favourable light. One moment opposition members were demanding that Helena Guergis be dismissed from cabinet, and the next, they were complaining bitterly that the Prime Minister had followed their advice. By midsummer the RCMP had cleared both Guergis and her husband, Rahim Jaffer, of any misconduct over charges brought by a bankrupt private investigator that had been passed on to the PM’s office by the Conservative Party’s lawyer.
  • MPs of all parties then did themselves some serious damage in the flap over the Auditor General’s right to audit their expenses. By the time a deal to allow an audit was brokered, MPs on all sides looked as if they had something to hide from public scrutiny.
  • Finally, there was the spectacle of a raft of ministerial aides being summoned to appear before parliamentary committees. In one case, a Liberal committee chair threatened a staffer with contempt for not answering questions when the staffer testified he had been told by the legal counsel to an officer of Parliament not to talk about the very subject under discussion. In a scene worthy of the Keystone Cops, the Prime Minister’s director of communications was pursued around the Hill by a bailiff attempting to serve a summons.

All of these controversies contributed to the public image of a political Ottawa out of touch with the real concerns of the electorate, and lost in its petty games of incessant and gratuitous insults, personal attacks and putdowns. And predictably, as parliamentarians limped into summer, there were renewed calls for the House of Commons to reform itself, and for the partisanship to be dialled back to more tolerable levels.

Is excessive partisanship in Parliament a threat to our democratic institutions or simply a reflection of our political system? To what extent is acrimony in the Commons largely a function of the current spell of minority government? And what role does the growing influence of negative advertising play in popular perceptions of politics in Canada?

Before everyone runs off in all directions remaking the House, it’s useful to pause for a moment to place a number of questions in context. Is excessive partisanship in Parliament a threat to our democratic institutions or simply a reflection of our political system? To what extent is acrimony in the Commons largely a function of the current spell of minority government? And what role does the growing influence of negative advertising play in popular perceptions of politics in Canada? In other words, what are the problems we are trying to fix, and what is the best way to meet that objective?

If the issue is partisanship, then we need to start with a dose of realism. Partisanship is defined as fervent, sometimes militant support for a party, cause, person or idea; and alternatively, a strong inclination to favour one group or view or opinion over all alternatives. It’s important to note that a significant amount of partisanship is natural and normal in our political and governing processes; it comes with the territory. Partisanship is probably the most obvious manifestation of the adversarial nature of politics, and this relationship is not accidental. Indeed, in its historical antecedents and development, the British parliamentary system evolved from distinctly adversarial roots.

Several hundred years ago, those who challenged the sovereign on behalf of the people sometimes paid with their lives. The stakes aren’t nearly as high today, but the point remains that the effective operation of our democratic system is rooted in a clash of ideas. The government proposes and the opposition opposes — those are their respective jobs. As a result, those who decry the normal back and forth in the House of Commons and ask “Why can’t they all just cooperate and get along?” are somewhat misguided in their proposed solution. In our system of government, the parties and leaders are not supposed to “get along”; they are supposed to disagree and challenge each other’s conceptions of governance. That’s how we get better legislation and policy. That’s how we make governments accountable.

The next factor to consider is the majority/minority dynamic. The stability provided by majority government sets some important parameters for the players in the political system. For the government, it means the predictability of being able to get its policy and legislative program through Parliament more or less intact, subject of course to the various House and Senate deliberative processes. On the other side, the opposition parties know there are practical limits to their ability to stall legislation or force changes. The government has a majority on all committees, and while there might be delays on complex or controversial legislation, the ultimate outcome is inevitable.

Majority parliaments also change the nature and content of legislation and House strategies on both sides. The government can tackle major reforms and difficult or touchy subjects early in its term, confident that while it may burn some political capital in the process, there will be time over the four-year mandate to build it back. The opposition parties, especially the Official Opposition, often take the first year or so in a majority to look inward and undertake some retooling of party policy and the reorganization of human and financial assets. Given the four-year term, there will be time enough in years three and four for the Official Opposition to focus on policy differentiation and the development of an alternative government narrative.

All of these ground rules change in a minority situation. What we see in Canada’s Parliament today has all the signs of a prolonged period of minority government. The stability provided by a majority has been replaced by uncertainty, for the simple reason that the average lifespan of Canada’s 12 minority governments over the past 143 years has been just under 18 months. Grand and controversial reforms are put off by the government for another day, but at the same time, successful implementation of the party platform becomes the top priority.

The uncertainty of minorities also breeds urgency and a “take no prisoners” attitude among the combatants. There is also a tendency for all parties to play to their respective partisan bases — the folks they may shortly need to hammer in lawn signs and work in the campaign office. As Tom Flanagan has rightly noted, we have been living in a period of “permanent campaign” since the election of the Paul Martin minority in 2004. He argues that the persistent sense that minorities are unstable and short-lived has created profound changes to both government and political culture: “After so many years of continuous campaigning, federal politicians are like child soldiers in a war-torn African country: all they know how to do is to fire their AK-47s.”

On the opposition benches, obstruction has become the order of the day, not only because they can successfully delay legislation or extract concessions and amendments, but also because denying the government progress on its legislative agenda becomes a viable political tactic in a minority. Like its predecessor, the current government has responded by loading up budgets with non-budgetary measures that would be doubtful of passage if they were introduced and debated separately. By making these measures part of the budget, the government has extended the mantle of confidence over non-budgetary issues and ensured that they can be authorized by the budget vote. These are the tactics that become inevitable when an election can occur at just about any time.

Many observers have decried the trend toward mammoth budget implementation bills as a subversion of the legislative role of Parliament. They argue that with so much detail included in the bill, both stakeholders and legislators are hamstrung in their efforts to analyze such legislation and fully understand its implications. There is likely some substance to those concerns, but there is also solid evidence that delay of legislation has become the principal game plan for the opposition parties in a minority. As C.E.S. (Ned) Franks noted recently in the Globe and Mail, during the Chrétien majority period 69 percent of the government’s legislation ultimately received royal assent, while the Harper government’s success rate in its first three years was only 45 percent.

It’s difficult, by the way, to think of a reform to Parliament that would address this issue. No government is going to allow constraints to be placed on its ability to govern; to do so is to hand control to the opposition and risk becoming a do-nothing government.

Partisanship is probably the most obvious manifestation of the adversarial nature of politics, and this relationship is not accidental. Indeed, in its historical antecedents and development, the British parliamentary system evolved from distinctly adversarial roots.

There’s another factor that has contributed to the perception of over-the-top partisanship — the growing use by political parties of attack advertisements or, more precisely, negative positioning. In one sense there is not much new here. Politicians have always used caricatures to skewer each other, to paint a negative picture of the other guy. But when combined with the technology of modern media and the 24-hour news cycle, this approach has become both highly effective and impossible to ignore or forgo.

As Jonathan Rose put it in Policy Options (September 2004), “Good negative ads do not persuade as much as they are able to reinforce existing opinion and translate that into sowing seeds of doubt about one’s opponent.” The basics of effective negative positioning are relatively simple:

  • Define targets negatively before they can create a positive definition themselves.
  • Ensure there is enough existing evidence for the characterization to be plausible.
  • Keep the message simple and to the point (no obscure references to “whiffs of sulphur” that need explaining to those unfamiliar with Mephistopheles).
  • Dalton McGuinty: “Not up to the job.”
  • Stephen Harper: “Hidden agenda/secret agenda.”
  • Stéphane Dion: “Not a leader.”
  • Michael Ignatieff: “Just visiting.”
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat the messaging over several months.
  • Pray that the target provides evidence to corroborate the thesis of the negative characterization.

The first systematic use of negative positioning at the federal level was used by the Liberals in the run-up to the 2004 election. With the Conservatives reunited in January of that year, and not having had the time to hold a policy conference or develop a comprehensive platform, the Liberals seized on the idea of claiming that Stephen Harper and his party were extremists and had a “hidden agenda.” This approach worked very well, and for several reasons. Going into the campaign, the Conservatives were dogged by controversial comments about bilingualism, health care, abortion and gays made in previous years by various Reform/ Alliance MPs, and more surfaced as the writ period unfolded. In other words, there was enough evidence to make the hidden agenda allegation plausible, and the Conservatives were undisciplined enough to provide even more corroborating evidence.

The rest, as they say, is history. The Conservatives learned the painful lessons of the 2004 election, imposed discipline on their caucus and filled in their policy voids for the next election in 2006. Instead of representing a hidden agenda, Stephen Harper became the leader with a fully detailed and fully costed agenda that he relentlessly revealed day after day during the campaign. The Conservatives also absorbed the potential value of negative positioning, and they have applied it with devastating effect against both Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff.

The point here is that for many people outside politics, negative positioning is just the latest development in an even more highly charged and negatively partisan political system far more engaged in character assassination than in policy differentiation. Such people would like the personal attacks to stop, because they believe they devalue politics and public service. That well may be true, but we should all get used to it, because negative positioning is now more than likely a permanent feature of our political system.

Efforts to reform Parliament especially need to take account of the minority reality, and the fact that it is likely transitory. The dominant model of Canadian politics is that minorities are transitional phases between periods of majority government. Reforms that work in a majority situation may not be as viable in a period of minority. An excellent example of this problem is fixed-term elections. Designed to provide predictability in a majority situation and remove from the prime minister the possibility of “gaming” electoral timing, fixed-term requirements clearly do not work well in a minority. When Prime Minister Harper called the 2008 election, he was seen by many as “breaking” his own fixed term, but the original intent of the legislation was to provide certainty in a majority situation.

While the following article will address some structural and procedural options for reforming the House of Commons, it’s useful to consider some attitudinal or behavioural changes that show some promise. The first is to build on those cases where collaboration among the parties has worked.

In late March Immigration Minister Jason Kenney tabled a package of reforms to fix Canada’s much-abused refugee asylum system. On June 2, he announced he had reached a deal with the Liberal immigration critic, Maurizio Bevilacqua, on a set of amendments to the reform package: “It’s urgent that we get workable reforms to the asylum system. That means a package that can get consensus in a minority Parliament. For that reason, I’ve indicated my openness to a collaborative approach.” As it turned out, the Liberal caucus promptly rejected the deal, but within days, Kenney had successfully negotiated another deal with the NDP and the Bloc, and the bill quickly passed. Both sides put some water in their wine, and the result was a much-needed set of reforms.

Similarly in June, Industry Minister Tony Clement and Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore tabled the government’s second attempt to craft a new Copyright Act for Canada. In their announcement, they acknowledged the challenges of fairly balancing the interests of creators and consumers in such a fast-moving technological sector and also clearly indicated openness to suggestions from the opposition parties for how the proposed legislation could be improved.

What’s similar about these two cases is that they both involve complex and controversial issues where change was long overdue. In the case of refugee reform, the need for modernization and common sense overcame partisan considerations; it study by an all-party parliamentary committee?

What we see in Canada’s Parliament today has all the signs of a prolonged period of minority government. The stability provided by a majority has been replaced by uncertainty, for the simple reason that the average lifespan of Canada’s 12 minority governments over the past 143 years has been just under 18 months.

The point here is that “making Parliament work” in a highly charged minority setting takes cooperation from both sides, but we need to be realistic. Not all issues are amenable to that approach, and not all offers of consultation will be reciprocated, and besides, setting out to work together is no guarantee of success. Early in the H1N1 situation, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq earned high marks for seeking out and briefing her opposition critics, but the potential for partisan advantage ultimately reasserted itself and she found herself accused by the Liberals of sending body bags to Indian reserves instead of vaccine.

The costs to the government in offering a more consultative approach on certain issues are minimal. They get the credit for taking the initiative and little of the blame if it doesn’t work out. But when it does work out, as in the case of the refugee asylum reforms, the advantages include progress in will be interesting to see if a similar understanding among the parties develops on copyright. There is another opportunity for a similar approach for the government on the near horizon: defining Canada’s future role in Afghanistan after the end of the combat role next year. With the Liberals having opened the door to some kind of continuing involvement after the combat role ends, what better way is there to define that role than through a addressing a pressing issue, not to mention the sharing of accountability for the ultimate outcome with the opposition.

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