The Opposition in the Canadian House of Commons: Role, Structure, and Powers

Feature by Jay Makarenko || Jan 30, 2008

The opposition is an important element of the Canadian parliamentary tradition and the day-to-day operation of government. This article examines the role, structure and powers of the opposition in Canada’s premier national legislature, the House of Commons. This includes discussions of the basic nature of opposition politics, the powers of the opposition in the House, the role of the Official Opposition (as a component of the opposition), and the disadvantages faced by the opposition in its relationship with the government.

Introduction to Opposition Politics in Canada

What is the opposition and what does it do?

Powers of the Opposition in the House of Commons

How does the House opposition “oppose” the government?

The Official Opposition in the House of Commons

Overview of the Official Opposition and the Opposition Leader

Limits on the Opposition in the House of Commons

Can the House opposition effectively oppose the government?

Sources and Links to Further Information

Lists of article sources and links to more on this topic

Introduction to Opposition Politics in Canada

What is the opposition and what does it do?

Parliamentary System and the Opposition

Opposition politics in Canada stems from the nation’s basic parliamentary system of government. Central to this system is the specific way governments (that is, the Prime Minister and Cabinet) are chosen. In Canada, citizens do not directly elect their Prime Minister. Instead, citizens elect representatives to the House of Commons, who then select a Prime Minister from amongst themselves. Who becomes Prime Minister and forms the government thus depends on who can muster the most support amongst members of the House.

This process of choosing a Prime Minister operates within a strict political party system. Elected representatives in the House usually belong to a federal political party, such as the Liberal Party of Canada, the Conservative Party of Canada or the New Democratic Party of Canada. In selecting who will become Prime Minister and form the government, elected representatives usually support the leader of the political party to which they belong. As such, who becomes Prime Minister, and forms the government, depends on which political party has the most elected members in the House.

For more information on Canada’s parliamentary system:

The House of Commons, therefore, is divided along an important line. On the one hand, there is the government side. This includes the Prime Minister, his/her Cabinet ministers, and all those other members of the legislature who share party allegiance with the Prime Minister and Cabinet. In the 39th Parliament, for example, the Conservative Party of Canada formed the government side in the House.

On the other hand, there is the opposition side (also referred to as the “opposition” or the “opposition parties”). This includes all those representatives in the House who belong to political parties not in government. In the 39th Parliament, this included those representatives belonging to the Liberal Party of Canada, the New Democratic Party of Canada and the Bloc Québécois.

The Opposition’s Basic Function

Under Canada’s parliamentary system, the basic function of the opposition is to oppose the government on a day-to-day basis (hence, the term “opposition”). In this role, the opposition takes on an adversarial role vis-à-vis the government. This includes routinely criticizing government legislation and actions, as well as providing the Canadian public with alternative policies. In some cases, the opposition may even organize to bring down the government, by voting against key pieces of government legislation, such as the annual budget (this is formally referred to as a vote of non-confidence).

In theory, then, the opposition acts as a check on the government’s power. In practice, however, it can usually do little more than criticize and attempt to publicly embarrass the government. This is due to the level of control the government has over the parliamentary process, as well as the prevalence of majority governments in Canadian politics, which enable the governing political party to dominate votes in the House.

The Opposition versus the Official Opposition

In Canadian politics, one often hears the terms “opposition” and “Official Opposition.” What is the difference? As stated above, the “opposition” refers to all those elected representatives in the House who belong to political parties not in government. The title of “Official Opposition,” by contrast, is reserved for the largest of these opposition parties; that is, the opposition party that has the most representatives in the House. In the 39th Parliament, for example, the Liberal Party of Canada was the largest political party not in government, and thus became the Official Opposition.

While the Official Opposition receives certain special privileges, it does not have any formal authority over the other opposition parties in the House.

Powers of the Opposition in the House of Commons

How does the House opposition “oppose” the government?

Questioning and Debating the Government

As discussed above, the opposition criticizes government actions and policies, and offers alternatives to the general public. In this context, the opposition is given several opportunities to question and debate the government.

One of most important of these is Question Period, which is officially referred to as “Oral Questions.” During each sitting day of the House of Commons – that is, days in which members of the House convene to discuss business and vote on legislation – 45 minutes is allotted for Question Period. The opposition can use this time to pose questions to the government and to state any criticisms they might have regarding the government’s actions and policies. The government, in turn, is given a chance to respond to these opposition questions and criticisms. These exchanges are typically very adversarial and often lack substantive political debate. The opposition will often attempt to trip up the government into making statements that will make it look bad in public, while the government will often respond in a manner that sidesteps the opposition’s questions. Moreover, Question Period can also involve personal attacks between opposition and government members, as well as heckling on both sides.

In addition to Question Period, the opposition may also debate the government during readings of proposed bills in the House. Before any piece of legislation (or “bill”) becomes law, it must undergo several stages of debate (or “readings”) in the House. During these readings, opposition members are usually given an opportunity to debate the government on the merits or weaknesses of the proposed legislation. In some cases, this may involve opposition members criticizing bills proposed by the government; in other cases it may involve supporting bills proposed by the opposition itself.

Opposition members may also regularly criticize the government in informal “media scrums” that occur outside of the chamber after a sitting of the House. During these scrums, members of the opposition make statements directly to reporters about House business and the conduct of the government, and also address questions posed to them by the media.

Finally, in organizing their questioning of the government, opposition parties often form shadow cabinets, where opposition spokespersons are responsible for criticizing specific cabinet ministries or portfolios. There will be, for example, a recognized opposition critic for national defence, foreign policy, finance, and so forth. Each opposition party usually forms its own shadow cabinet.

Introducing Legislation in the House

Opposition members also have the power to introduce legislation for consideration by the House of Commons through private members’ bills. Members of the House not in Cabinet are referred to as “private members” – hence the term “private members’ bill.” This includes members of opposition parties, independent members (members that do not belong to a political party), and government backbenchers (members that belong to the governing political party but who are not in Cabinet).

Normally, private members’ bills may include any sort of legislation except those dealing with the appropriation of public revenues or taxation. These financial bills may only be introduced by the government; that is, by the Prime Minister or a Cabinet minister. In some rare cases, however, a private member may get special permission to introduce a piece of legislation dealing with government finances.

Like any legislation introduced in the House of Commons, private members’ bills go through the normal legislative cycle. In order for them to become law, they must go through several readings and debates within the House. A private members’ bill may also be given to a parliamentary committee for more detailed review. Finally, the bill must be formally approved in both the House and the Senate, as well as receive Royal Assent (approval from the Monarchy or his/her representative, the Governor General).

For more information on private member’s bills:

Opposition Days in the House

Opposition members also have the opportunity to influence the formulation of laws and policies during Opposition Days in the House of Commons (also referred to as “Supply Days”). Normally, the government controls the House’s daily agenda, including what motions will be discussed and voted upon by all members. During Opposition Days, however, opposition motions have precedence over government motions. As such, opposition members can effectively control the House’s agenda (hence the term “Opposition Days”). This power to control the agenda, however, does not mean that opposition motions will be passed, it simply means that the opposition members are able to control what motions will be discussed and voted upon.

Opposition Days are another holdover from the British or Westminster parliamentary system. Originally, Opposition Days were associated with debates over “supply” and were held prior to the release of budget estimates – hence the interchangeable “Supply Days” moniker. They were created so that opposition members could advance ideas for what should, and should not, be funded by the government. In more recent years, Opposition Days have become known as opportunities for opposition members to draw attention to issues and policy positions the government would not normally discuss.

Votes of Non-Confidence

One of the opposition’s most important powers is the ability to undertake votes of non-confidence against the government. Central to Canada’s parliamentary system is the requirement that the government maintain the support (or “confidence”) of the House. This support, or lack thereof, is regularly expressed through votes in the House. If a majority of House members vote against a key piece of government legislation, such as the annual budget, then one would say the government has lost the confidence of the House. This usually results in the fall of the government and a general election being held to elect a new government. Opposition members may also initiate a vote of non-confidence by simply introducing a motion declaring the House no longer supports the government, which is then voted upon by all members of the House.

Normally, the governing political party has a clear majority in the House, meaning that more than 50 percent of the members of the House belong to the same political party as the Prime Minister and Cabinet (this is referred to as a “majority government”). In these cases, votes of non-confidence are very difficult for the opposition to orchestrate. The Prime Minister can simply use party discipline to ensure that all of his/her party’s members vote in favour of key pieces of government legislation or against opposition motions of non-confidence.

In minority governments, however, votes of non-confidence are a much more powerful tool for the opposition. This is because the government only has a minority (less than 50 percent) of the members in the House. As such, the opposition parties can work together to vote down a key piece of government legislation or to pass a vote of non-confidence against the government. In order to protect themselves against votes of non-confidence, minority governments will often work closely with one or more of the opposition parties to ensure that proposed legislation will be acceptable to them, and that they will support it when it comes time to vote in the House.

Parliamentary Committees

Another way in which the opposition may influence legislation and policy is through the parliamentary committee system. The House of Commons has committees made up by members from all political parties; however, they are usually administered and controlled by the members in the governing political party. The purpose of these committees is to review proposed legislation and government actions, and to offer advice on how to strengthen them.

Parliamentary committees do not have the power to force the government to change legislation it proposes. It may only make suggestions, which the government is free to heed or ignore. This is not to suggest that the government will never listen to parliamentary committees, but simply that it is not required to do so. In cases of minority governments, however, the work of parliamentary committees can become much more significant. This is because the governing political party alone does not have enough members in the House to pass legislation, but must rely on the support from one or more opposition parties. As such, it may take seriously the suggestions made by opposition members in parliamentary committees as a way of ensuring that government legislation will be passed when it reaches a final vote in the House.

The Official Opposition in the House of Commons

Overview of the Official Opposition and the Opposition Leader

Who Forms the Official Opposition?

Opposition politics in Canada is also characterized by the existence of an Official Opposition. As stated earlier, the title “Official Opposition” is usually given to the largest opposition party. Following the 2006 Canadian federal election, for example, there were three parties in opposition: the Liberal Party, the New Democratic Party, and the Bloc Québécois. Of those three opposition parties, the Liberals had the most seats in the House of Commons, and were thereby recognized as the House’s Official Opposition.

It is important to note, however, that a political party can refuse the title of Official Opposition, in which case the next largest opposition party takes on the role. This occurred in 1921 when the Progressive Party of Canada (a distinct party, separate from the Conservative Party at the time) was the largest opposition party, but turned down the chance to form the Official Opposition. Consequently, the Conservative Party, the next largest opposition party, assumed the role.

The Official Opposition’s Function

The Official Opposition’s function is to take the lead in holding the government accountable for its actions and policies. The Official Opposition does not have authority over the other opposition parties, nor does it control their criticisms of the government. Instead, opposition parties (whether they are the Official Opposition or not) usually review and attack the government independently. The notion of “taking the lead” here simply means that the Official Opposition is often given the first and most extensive opportunity to criticize government policies and actions. This is facilitated through the granting of special rights and privileges to the Official Opposition over other opposition parties (see below).

Another important role of the Official Opposition is to take on the image of “government in waiting,” by presenting itself to the public as a viable alternative to the government of the day. The Official Opposition will usually advocate a set of policies which are significantly different from those of the government. Moreover, key members of the Official Opposition, such as the Leader and senior party members, will often present themselves as government leaders in waiting, ready to take over as Prime Minister and Cabinet ministers should the current government fall.

The Official Opposition’s Special Privileges

The Official Opposition is granted special rights and privileges above those granted to other opposition parties.

First, the leader of the political party that forms the Official Opposition is formally recognized as the “Leader of the Opposition” (or “Opposition Leader”). Following the 2006 general election, for example, the Liberal Party became the Official Opposition. As a result, the leader of the Liberal Party becomes the Leader of the Opposition. The position of Opposition Leader was first officially recognized in Canada in 1905, when the occupant of that position was granted a salary equal to that of a Cabinet minister. Although the function of the Opposition Leader is not governed by statute, the role is officially recognized in the procedures of the House of Commons.

The Opposition Leader does enjoy certain privileges, which are not extended to other opposition party leaders. S/he has special status at official functions and in parliamentary ceremonies, as well as international standing with foreign governments; foreign dignitaries will often meet with the Opposition Leader during state visits to Canada. In addition to a salary and expense allowance as a Member of Parliament, the Opposition Leader receives other perks, such as a car allowance and an official residence in Ottawa, which is referred to as Stornoway. The Opposition Leader, like the Prime Minister, also receives a large staff and offices in the House of Commons, which other opposition party leaders do not receive.

During Question Period, the Official Opposition is permitted to ask more questions of the government more often. The Opposition Leader gets to question the government first, and the Official Opposition’s questions usually come before those of any other opposition party. Moreover, the Official Opposition receives more funding than any other opposition party, which enables it to better organize its opposition to the government.

One of the greatest assets of being the Official Opposition is the accompanying publicity that such prominence affords. The Official Opposition and the Opposition Leader usually draw large and regular media and public attention. This, in turn, enables the party and its leader to keep a high public profile, and to more effectively communicate to the public its policies and criticisms of the government. Other opposition parties, especially those with limited members in the House, often struggle to draw public attention.

Limits on the Opposition in the House of Commons

Can the House opposition effectively oppose the government?

To say that that the adversarial relationship between the government and the opposition is a fair fight would be an exaggeration; this is particularly the case when there is a majority (as opposed to a minority) government. This section examines some of the advantages enjoyed by the government, and disadvantages faced by the opposition, in their relationship.

Government Power over the Parliamentary Process

One key disadvantage the opposition faces is the government’s control over the parliamentary process. For example, with the exception of those limited times and days set aside for the opposition parties, the government controls the parliamentary timetable. As such, the government dictates what sorts of motions and bills the House will hear, debate and vote upon. Moreover, through the use of certain parliamentary powers, such as closure, the government can limit parliamentary debate. This is a particularly powerful tool for the government when it holds a majority in the House because it can close debate, and then use its majority to quickly pass or defeat a motion or bill. Furthermore, as the government has power over key positions in parliamentary committees, it is often able to control the outcomes of the committee process. In addition, the government can simply disregard any advice or conclusions offered by a committee if it so chooses.

Government Access to Departments and Ministries

Another disadvantage faced by the opposition stems from the government’s access to its department and ministries. As the head of the executive branch of government, the Prime Minister and Cabinet ministers have unlimited access to the staff, resources, and knowledge of their governmental departments and ministers. Moreover, the government can use these large resources when dealing with the criticisms and questions posed by the opposition parties, either in the House or publicly through the media. While opposition parties are provided with publicly funded staff and resources for their own partisan activities (and can also draw on their own internal funds and staff), these never come close to the resources at the disposal of government.

Fragmentation of the Opposition in the House

Making matters even more difficult for the opposition is the reality that very little solidarity exists between the opposition parties when opposing the government in the House. Each opposition party is its own entity, with its own policies, ideologies, members, and leaders. This, in turn, can degrade cooperation between opposition parties, and even create outright inter-party conflict within the opposition. For example, during the Liberal governments of the 1990s and 2000s, the opposition comprised two right-of-centre conservative parties (which often fought between themselves), a left-wing social democratic party, and a Quebec regional party whose primary purpose was to promote Quebec independence from Canada. As such, there was very little common ground between the opposition parties, and these parties often vigorously opposed one another on key policy questions.

By contrast, the government (particularly in the case of a majority government) is a single political party, which is usually very manageable through party discipline. As such, the government can present itself as a united and focused front against the opposition parties, and attempt to take advantage of sharp disagreements and conflicts within the opposition.

It is important to note, however, that circumstances can arise in which the governing political party becomes fragmented itself, with particular individuals or groups within the party fighting for control over leadership or party policy. This, in turn, can leave the government open to manipulation by the opposition parties, especially if the opposition can introduce legislation or raise the public profile on issues that will cause a wedge between members of the government. One recent example of this sort of fragmentation was the later stages of Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s tenure, in which the governing Liberal Party was highly divided over the rivalry between Prime Minister Chrétien and the Finance Minister Paul Martin.

Competition with Other Political Actors

Not only does the opposition often face fragmentation within its ranks, it also has to compete with other political actors in society in its opposition to government. Modern Canadian democracy is characterized by the existence of a wide range of well-organized and financed interest groups, lobby and advocacy organizations, and research institutes. These actors, moreover, regularly engage in the activity of publicly criticizing the government and offering alternative public policy choices. In doing so, they will frequently offer well articulated and publicized reports and public policy statements. Opposition parties can find it difficult to compete in this environment, and have their voice and ideas heard above the general hubbub of other political actors.

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