Believe it or not, this post is not actually going to be about my hatred of Stephen Harper. Not that I don’t hate him, mind you, but there have been alot of bad Prime Ministers in the past, and Canadian democracy has managed to survive every single one of them. If the problem were just with Stephen Harper, then I would be perfectly willing to grit my teeth and sit out the next
four three years.
No; rather, this post is about the systemic rot which has beset practically all of the institutions of Canadian public life, especially the Federal Government.
Canada is a country which essentially has no vigourous system of checks and balances. What small constitutional protections we have were introduced only recently, and only with extreme difficulty, and the judges on the Supreme Court are all appointed (along with every other notable official) by the Prime Minister; It is a system, rather, that’s based on precedent–not just the precedent of the brief few centuries of recorded Canadian history, but going back nearly 800 years to the signing of the Magna Carta. And in spite of what would seem basic common sense, it has worked for us surprisingly well.
Because, the system, you see, is contingent on the assumption of the good faith of the Prime Minister. Perhaps there was a time when this was a reasonable assumption to make, but if so, that time has long since passed. Understand that, I for once, am not laying the blame for this sorry state of affairs strictly upon Mr. Harper’s doorstep; instead, his reign is but the nadir of a sorry trend that has been ongoing for at least the last forty years. First, we had Trudeau, who began the practice of centralizing power in the Prime Minister’s office, and started using this power to place loyalists in positions of authority. Mulroney continued this trend through his unprecedented expansion of the senate in order to force through the GST (and, of course, more patronage appointments). Next up was Mr. Chretien, who began shamefully abusing the mechanisms of closure and prorogation in order to artificially terminate debates in the house (and of course, patronage galore). Paul Martin effectively eviscerated ministerial independence by ruthlessly emptying his cabinet of anyone who was not single-mindedly supportive of him. Finally, we have Harper, who has used the mechanism of prorogation to effectively overturn the idea of Parliamentary supremacy; whereas once upon a time, the Prime Minister ruled with the support of parliament, these days Parliament sits only by grace of the Prime Minister. He has not only expanded Chretien’s shameful legacy of using closure to suppress debate, but he has started-up the odious practice of introducing wide-ranging reforms the forms of omnibus bills, essentially allowing him to circumvent any debate whatsoever. I don’t even know what the point of MPs is anymore; once upon a time, they were meant to represent the interests of their ridings to the Federal Government; these days, however, they might as well be lobotomized, for they have been reduced, essentially, to the level of empty suits who take marching orders directly from the PMO. Thus, for example, even while the population of Nunavut faces skyrocketing food prices to the point of starvation, their MP, Ms. Aglukkaq, sits back and does nothing for them in cabinet.
So no: this isn’t about Harper. He’s making things worse to be sure, but it’s not his fault; every Prime Minister since 1970* has his share of the blame. And neither will it end with Harper; much as I like the policy direction prescribed by the NDP, I can’t honestly imagine that Thomas Mulcair, once in office, would voluntarily surrender any of the power of that office; indeed, he would probably even take more. People always make a great noise about the need for “reform” while they’re in opposition (Stephen Harper himself, in fact, made his entire political career out of it), but few and far between are those who are actually willing to do so once they take power. Moreover, because so much of our system is based in tradition (which is now being blatantly disrespected at every turn), any reforms that we make would pretty much have to be codified in the Constitution to have any force whatsoever. And even if their was, hypothetically, some future Prime Minister who was willing to do so, modifying the constitution is a notoriously difficult process.
So what can be done?
Well, one surprisingly encouraging idea I’ve heard is a new drive to recruit Andrew Coyne to become the leader of the Liberal Party. I happen to trust Coyne on this file, for the very simple reasons that (a) he’s pretty much the only journalist in the mainstream press who has been paying the problem any attention whatsoever, and (b) he’s been doing so in spite of his own Conservative leanings, implying that he is a man who honestly believes in the principles of democracy, rather than just expediency. However, he has, to my knowledge, not expressed any actual interest in seeking this position, would face an uphill battle if he did, and would have still greater difficulty actually becoming Prime Minister. And of course, once he was Prime Minister, how would he go about amending the constitution? This option feels like a long-shot, but it appears to be the only one that actually exists within the system.
However, it is too often forgotten these days that there is more to democracy than merely casting a ballot every four years; there could exist a solution from outside of the system, using the sheer force of the public will. I know that it sounds radical, perhaps, but please bear with me: how did the Magna Carta come into force in the first place? Was it because King John just felt like giving up those powers, or was it because his barons forced him to do so by threat of revolt? Moreover, how do you suppose that Responsible Government came to Canada in the first place? Did the Family Compact and the Chateau Clique just give-up their vetoes over colonial life out of the goodness of their hearts, or do you suppose that the Mackenzie and Papineau rebellions might have had a thing or two to do with it? At some point, the population of a country (or at least a broad swath of it) has to be able to come together and say: “government is important; our only say in government is through parliament; parliament must and shall be supreme.” Surely there must be a limit even to what a temperate people like the Canadians are willing to take. Is anyone paying attention though?
So how long will it be before we are willing to take unashamedly to the streets, demand that things change, and refuse move a centimetre until we see those changes? Because, unless I have missed some absolutely key point in my analysis, it may be our democracy’s last, best hope.
*With the possible exceptions of Joe Clark and Kim Campbell