Canadians aren't used to parliamentary government, in large part because we aren't used to federal politics built around real differences between our major parties over real issues. Instead, we are used to two conservative parties squabbling over mutual (often accurate) accusations of corruption, and over symbolic issues – most with little meaning to the daily lives of citizens.
Canadians have therefore long tuned out federal politics between elections. But that all changed on May 2nd.
We now have some real choices on offer in federal politics, and real debate over real issues. Like, for example, whether or not people have the right to withhold their labour if they don't like the pay they're being offered by their bosses.
The Conservative government is clear on where it stands. Faced with the situation at Canada Post (negotiations over pay and benefits broke down; the employer made a final offer which was not accepted; employees began to pressure the employer; and the employer then locked the employees out of work), the government has intervened with a bill that would order the employees, by law, to accept a worse deal than Canada Post proposed in its final offer.
Consider how that would play out in your own daily life. You're at work and renegotiating your salary. Your employer offers you, say, $50,000 a year. You don't accept this proposal – you feel you're worth $52,000. So your employer kicks you out of the office and tells you you'll stay out until you accept $50,000. And then Stephen Harper steps in and threatens you with fines or jail if you don't agree to return to work for, say, $48,000 – less than your boss offered you.
That's what's happening at Canada Post. Before 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.
But there's a new sheriff in town – a new, more numerous and more determined New Democrat Official Opposition with some important tools available to it to shine on light on issues like this. A majority government is in place, and it can ultimately get what it wants. But a real opposition, fighting on a real issue, can make things go very slowly indeed – so that Canadians can judge the issues, and see what Mr. Harper's government is doing in the bright light of day.
In short, we finally have an Official Opposition capable of, and willing to, do its job.
In a panel discussion about this matter a couple of days ago, a Conservative friend suggested that the current debate in Parliament shows the New Democrats have some "growing up to do." In fact it is the Conservatives who have some growing up to do. They need to learn that having power is not a license to abuse it. And that the people of Canada elected 308 MPs, including a muscular Official Opposition that will work, within the rules of our democracy and long into the night, to shine a light on misjudgments and misgovernment.