Why does the public go bananas when Danielle Smith, the leader of the Official Opposition, criticizes the PC government? They say she's too negative, too shrill, too something. Can't she be more positive, they ask? More supportive?
Clearly they haven't a clue about the role of the Opposition.
A thankless job
Winston Churchill grumped that being shot was a kindness compared to being the leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. He's right.
Consider this. Danielle Smith, as the leader of the Opposition, has the privilege of being the leader of the government-in-waiting without having access to the levers of power that she needs to make things happen. It's her job to point out the idiocy of the government's legislation, its policies and, all too frequently, its misconduct.
At the same time, she needs to keep a wary eye on the leaders of the second and third opposition parties who are busy scoring points of their own in an effort to move into the pole position prior to the next election.
Plus there are the loose cannons on the independent side of the aisle -- notably former Wildrose caucus member Joe Anglin, who responded to the throne speech with a diatribe on Wildrose nepotism before praising the premier for tabling Bill 1 (a bill that purports to reaffirm the government's commitment to individual property rights by repealing the government's own un-proclaimed Bill 19, which purportedly took away an individual's property rights). Got that?
Notley good; Smith bad?
At first I thought the public's anger with Smith was a manifestation of the general bias against powerful women -- an assertive man is the "boss," but an assertive woman is "bossy" and needs to tone it down and be "nice."
But that theory doesn't align with the public's affection for the new NDP leader, Rachel Notley. Notley made her debut as the NDP Opposition Leader on Nov 18, 2014. It's clear from her comments on the throne speech and her go-for-the-jugular style in question period that the new premier and his 43 year old government are in for a rough ride.
Here are some examples:
On the government's failure to deliver on its promise of new schools, greater access to post-secondary education, and more long-term care beds, she said: "After promising not to be your father's PC Party, it looks like dad is back in charge."
On plummeting oil prices, she said (with a touch of sarcasm): "...after 43 years in government no one could ever have predicted that oil prices might fluctuate..."
On the closure of the ER at the Miseracordia hospital (the roof collapsed when the building flooded for the third time this year), she asked: "Why has [the premier's] government, through their incompetence and grossly negligent behavior, been allowed to put the health and safety of Albertans at risk?"
On the unelected education minister jumping the queue to deliver new school modules in Calgary-Elbow, a riding where he was fighting for a seat, she asked: "...Does the Premier understand that by his failure to deal with his education minister's conduct during the by-elections, his caucus' integrity problem is now his integrity problem?"
Notley's tone is every bit as harsh as Smith's, sometimes more so; however, she's viewed as delivering "mild jabs" while Smith is vilified for crossing the line.
The eye of the beholder
The answer comes from Gerald Schmitz, a political writer who says that "the role of an opposition party...is to check and prod, but ultimately to replace the government party."
Schmitz notes that "[t]he balance between compromise and obstruction, co-option and reflex opposition, is often in the eye of the beholder." This is enormously significant because one's view of how well or how poorly the Opposition parties are performing is biased by which party one supports.
Albertans content with the PC government (or fearful of the Wildrose) behold Smith as too negative, not because she is, but because she leads the party that almost deposed the PCs after four decades in power. When she exposes the government's shortcomings, she increases the chances that the WR will push the PCs into the dustbin the next time around.
Notley, on the other hand, is the leader of the NDP and it's a given that the NDP will never form government, right? So as bright and quick as she is, when she attacks the PC government she's not viewed as a threat by Albertans satisfied with the status quo.
John Diefenbaker said that "it is human nature for government to find the Opposition distasteful, and the longer governments are in power the more they become convinced that they govern by divine right and that their decisions are infallible."
Nowhere is Diefenbaker's warning more poignant than in Alberta -- a one-party petrostate with nothing but contempt for the Opposition parties and the few democratic processes (such as question period) that remain at their disposal.
So here's a message to the Opposition parties. The 28th legislature is now in session. Smith, Notley, and Raj Sherman: Give it everything you've got!