What does a real Parliament look like?

The NDP feted May 2nd, 2011 as a great victory for progressives, in light of their electoral performance, and so after more than a year in it seems worthwhile to review their progress. Since they have never legislated nor formed government federally, all we have available to judge the NDP is their record as the Official Opposition. If we cast an eye back to shortly after the last election, Brian Topp, a prominent NDP strategist and failed leadership candidate, gave us a preview of what the NDP opposition would look like as the “new sheriff in town”.

Another session of Parliament has begun and it already feels quite familiar; it brings a disheartening sense of déjà vu. Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives are planning on serving up another omnibus bill which, if the last sitting of Parliament was any indication, will go unread, undebated, and thoroughly unchecked. Though the NDP has promised that they will make every effort to see that the proper work of Parliament is done, it seems unlikely that the eventual juggernaut of a bill will even be slowed down.  Among other things, Topp promised that the NDP “will work, within the rules of our democracy and long into the night, to shine a light on misjudgments and misgovernment.” However, since then, the NDP has done nothing to curb the instances of committees being brought in camera or the use of closure to force through bills; Elizabeth May made a solid argument that the last omnibus was illegitimate and the NDP couldn’t even debate it, let alone break it up or slow it down. Aside from taking a beating on their various socialist policies, it’s hard to point to a single accomplishment of theirs since the last election.

Before I am accused of judging the NDP too harshly, keep in mind another quote from Topp: “[b]efore May 2, there would have been relatively little debate on Mr. Harper’s intervention, since the Conservatives found a like-minded partner in the former Liberal opposition.” Topp knows as well as I do that the Liberal party was no great fan of the Conservative government (given that he was one of the main architects of the failed coalition with the Liberal party in 2008), so then he must mean that Liberals were guilty of allowing Conservative legislation to pass. If this is the standard that the NDP was planning on surpassing, then we could reasonably expect them to do something in that direction though this is not the case. Even on the issue Topp mentions in his article, “whether or not people have the right to withhold their labour”, progress is the same. Topp mentions labour being legislated back to work at Canada Post, a failure for the NDP, and implies that the next time, the NDP will be there to help. But when the same issue came up with Air Canada, the Conservatives were able to walk all over organized labour again, a thorough beating under the NDP’s watch. Even if we hold the NDP to the low bar of simply having to “shine on light on issues like this” (Topp again), they have not even been able to do that. The last time we talked about organized labour in Parliament was a joke about legislating the NHL back to work.

Just as a we judge a government’s performance based on its election promises, we judge the NDP based on their promises when they took over their current role. As Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery reporter Dale Smith points out, the NDP does not seem to fully understand the role and function of the Official Opposition. According to Topp this what “a real Parliament looks like”, a characterization that would be hilarious if it wasn’t tragic. At its best, the Official Opposition should oppose bad policy and improve legislation; judged against that bar, the NDP is far from ready to form government.

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