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Reading about the clashes between the governing coalition and the opposition in NZ Parliament like this makes me wonder:

Since the governing coalition got the majority sufficient to make binding decisions on their own, just what the opposition is doing in the Parliament? They haven't got the power anyway. They only create noise and distraction, waste everyone's time. They ask questions and try to hold the government to account, but the government will do what it is determined to do anyway no matter what the opposition says or votes for.

I presume the above consideration may be seriously flawed and missing something, which would be the reason opposition parties are allowed to sit and make noise in various democratic countries' parliaments. If so, what are those compelling reasons?

Otherwise, have ever any democratic country adopted the approach to exclude powerless/opposition parties from their parliament so that the formed government, while in term, could do its job in the most efficient manner?

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    The first question (reasons for including the opposition) is answered here: In parliamentary systems, why does the ruling party bother debating any legislation if they have enough votes to pass whatever they please?. I don't think it's a duplicate because this question also asks about counterexamples
    – xyldke
    Dec 19, 2023 at 7:57
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    I wonder if a more useful question is: "what is the purpose of the Opposition in a parliamentary state"? I'd argue that they serve an absolutely essential purpose, even if - on the face of it - they appear to have no power. But that's not the question being asked here. Dec 19, 2023 at 9:38
  • It sounds like the system you want isn't actually a parliament, or representative democracy at all. Why bother electing representatives and having them vote on legislation (and all the other parliamentary process) if you think the leadership of the party that got the most seats should just get to decree whatever they want? Just have a single election (via counting victories in separate regional votes if you want the effects of "seats" on elections but don't like parliamentary discussions), and then let the winner rule by decree for 3 years (hiring whatever deputies they find necessary).
    – Ben
    Dec 22, 2023 at 6:41
  • @Ben parliamentary discussions are still needed to fine-tune what the winning parties campaigned on, or adjust it to the current situation, so it is definitely good to have the winners debate it (vs party leaders just rule). But as the opposition wants to go to the completely opposite direction, that's just not gonna happen no matter how much time they spend debating: the winners are not gonna make a U-turn anyway.
    – Greendrake
    Dec 22, 2023 at 11:59

6 Answers 6

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The questions contains some (in my view) flawed assumptions related to the purpose of the the Opposition in a parliamentary state.

Power without oversight or scrutiny is generally regarded as a Bad Thing, as it allows the people in power to do whatever they like without anyone knowing about it or trying to stop them. Hence the purpose of the Opposition is to provide that scrutiny by forcing the Government to publicly justify everything they do, to draw attention to matters of public interest, and to try and persuade the Government to change their plans where the Opposition disagrees with them.

Now, practices vary between countries, so I'm going to focus on the UK Parliament. While it's tempting to regard passing legislation as the primary role of a legislature, it is merely one of (at least) 3 functions.

The first hour of every sitting in the House of Commons (excluding Fridays) is Question Time, where MPs of all parties ask members of the Government questions relating to their departmental responsibilities. In addition, ministers routinely make statements - and take questions - on important matters; and failing that, MPs can ask the Speaker to force a minister to make a statement on a specific matter if the government haven't already offered to do so.

All of this fulfils the scrutiny requirement described above. It is essential to a functioning democracy to do this - and it requires the Government's biggest critics to be present and not excluded.

Another function of the legislature is to debate specific matters of interest, which the Commons does every week. The subjects can be suggested by MPs, by the Government, or by Opposition parties. These lead to no action, and aren't tied to any legislation; but they are an opportunity for interested MPs to voice their opinion.

And as regards legislation: while the result is mostly (but not always) a foregone conclusion, it again gives MPs an opportunity to share their views and make suggestions. And it is not unheard of for suggestions to result in the Government amending their own bill - though when that happens, it's often not clear where the idea might have originated, so it's hard to see the process.

One should also not underestimate how much discussion between parties and MPs happens in private. It's not at all unusual for Governments and Opposition parties to reach agreement on issues outside the Chamber.

My point is: Governments do actually (sometimes) listen to dissenting views in the Chamber, and so it is in everyone's interest for those view to be heard. Ultimately, having the Opposition present makes for better Government.


To respond to a couple of points made by the OP:

In a comment: "People have elected the government to get shit done, so why impede it?": some of the people elected the government to get things done - but what about all the people who voted for other parties? They're still entitled to representation; and although those other parties may not be in power, they still have an important job to do.

"They only create noise and distraction, waste everyone's time.": far from it; scrutiny is essential - otherwise, why bother having a Parliament at all? Governments understandably don't always like the comments and criticism they get - but in a functioning democracy, everyone recognises the need for a system like this, and the perils of not having it.

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    Another potential point is that there's going to be an election in a few years, and having the opposition participate in the legislative process gives a good sense to the voters about whether they should stick with the same party, or if changing to the opposition might be a wise idea. (Which is one reason why the ruling party bothers to compromise with the opposition - if they hard-line or grandstand too much, they might lose voters.)
    – R.M.
    Dec 19, 2023 at 17:53
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    As a quick example to the "people elected" part: 2015 Polish parliamentary election. With a turnout of 50.92%, the winning coalition got 37.58% of votes which got them 51% of the seats. If we run the numbers, only 19.14% of eligible voters actually voted on the winners.
    – jaskij
    Dec 19, 2023 at 17:59
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    @R.M.: I'd also add that it gives the majority party the understanding of what things they might be passing that the opposition would be using as election campaign material; to cover why the majority party is on board with even allowing the opposition to do this to begin with. Dec 20, 2023 at 5:35
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There are several factors involved:

  • The opposition may convince members of parliament who previously supported the government to defect to their side. If this happens on a single issue, the opposition scored a single victory. If it reflects a permanent shift, the opposition may call for a vote of no confidence.
    Just how practical this is depends on the strength of party discipline. In most democracies, members of parliament are free to vote any way they wish, but breaking party discipline has consequences when it comes to the next election. They cannot go against the party line and expect to run on the party ticket again. In other democracies, these consequences are less likely or less immediate. Compare the free-wheeling US Congress, the polite circumlocutions of the UK whip, and the concept of conscience vote (which might be considered a tautology).
  • It gives experts in the opposition the chance to convince the government on some policy issues. The real work of a parliament is not done in the chambers, it happens in subcommittee hearings where experts from all parties meet.
  • If forces the government to explain their policies, and allows the opposition to generate sound bites for their social media accounts. In recent years, speaking to the camera rather than the legislators seems to become more and more common.
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Since the governing coalition got the majority sufficient to make binding decisions on their own, just what the opposition is doing in the Parliament? They haven't got the power anyway. They only create noise and distraction, waste everyone's time. They ask questions and try to hold the government to account, but the government will do what it is determined to do anyway no matter what the opposition says or votes for.

The implicit assumption here is that parliament only serves only to elect government, which then has the license to do whatever it wants for a certain period of years (a bit like electors in the US presidential elections.) In this sense, once the government has been approved, one needs neither opposition, nor the pro-government parties.

In practice, in most parliamentary democracies, parliament also serves as the principal legislative body (the equivalent of the US Congress), which signs off on all the laws proposed by the government (even though the latter keeps the executive authority concerning day-to-day management.) Obviously, if one party has a clear majority and strong party discipline, like in the US, such votes become a mere formality. However, this is often not the case, especially in a multiparty system. Some members of the governing coalition may disagree with a law proposed by the government, while others may support this law - so that a specific law may pass or not, without setting in cause the government itself (although this usually can be removed via a non-confidence vote.) This is also how it works in the US, although the number of dissenters from the ruling party and the potential supporters from the opposition is usually very small (and their names are well-known.)

Some laws may require super-majority - a number of votes that the government doesn't have, but which can be obtained from the oppositions (or not.)

In this context, it is worth bringing up the Enabling act by which Reichstag (the German parliament) gave Hitler dictatorial powers in 1933, and made itself irrelevant for the future. However, it is necessary to point out that passing the Enabling act required super-majority, which was achieved via physically excluding Communists and other left-wing parties from being present, and systematic voter and candidate intimidation in the preceding elections: at the time Hitler had at his command about two million Stormtroopers (brown shirts) - significant force, compared to the size of the German Army, which by Versailles Treaty was limited to a hundred thousand members.)

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To answer your question: Not currently, at least among peaceful, democratic parliaments. But there have been parliaments where the pressure to be in government is so strong that all MPs signed on at the last minute.

In Melanesia, before reforms, there was immense pressure for MPs to join governments. This was associated with a spoils system, where the purpose of being in government was to send jobs, contracts, etc. back to home districts.

In New York and Chicago, membership in the political machines was mandatory for anyone seeking influence. Not parliaments, but similar principal.

During WWII, the UK had a unity government that ensured there was no real opposition. It also allowed the UK to go 10 years without a general election. There was some opposition, from Welsh, Scottish, and Northern Irish secessionists, but they didn't enter Parliament.

One reason "out of power" MPs stay in Parliament is because their constituents demand an MP of a particular party. And often a specific person, too. Constituent services are an important part of being a legislator. Legislators are representatives of their constituents, not just employees of a political party.

In New Zealand every district is allowed to vote for their own specific MP. That means they get to chose a specific person, of a specific party, to represent their district and provide constituent services.

The MPs are not (all) interchangeable employees of the political parties. They are people chose by specific specific districts to represent them.

For example, in New Zealand there are Maori districts reserved for Maori voters. Presumably, they elect Maori candidates. If all non-government MPs are expelled, there's a chance all Maori candidates would be expelled. That would mean no Maori representation in Parliament - which would decrease the legitimacy of Parliament.

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    – Community Bot
    Dec 20, 2023 at 3:08
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The governing party or coalition is usually not always perfectly united on every issue. If they have a clear mandate for the legislation they want to pass, e.g. in relation to a manifesto commitment from a recent election, the opposition probably won't be able to stop them.

However, if a mandate is lacking, or there are rival factions within the government that cannot agree how to vote, the opposition is more likely to be able to force a retreat or even a defeat.

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which would be the reason opposition parties are allowed to sit and make noise

Parliamentary rules such as "Robert's Rules of Order", "Jefferson's Manual" and "Rules of the Senate" are designed to protect the minority party.

The purpose of protecting the minority party, and providing a platform for their dissent, is to encourage minority parties to remain within the system, rather than splitting and attempting revolution, treason, or sedition.

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