Demise of democracy

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PIERRE Trudeau started it. Stephen Harper is finishing it off.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/11/2011 (3929 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

PIERRE Trudeau started it. Stephen Harper is finishing it off.

The “it” is the effective demise of parliamentary democracy and the installation of “court government” ruled by an all-powerful prime minister and his hand-picked, unelected, unaccountable “courtiers.”

Fiercely partisan, these “courtiers,” like their medieval predecessors, have only one purpose: to protect, advance and polish the image of the “king” — the prime minister.

Not only are formal and traceable lines of policy-making and accountability gone, but parliamentary government has been turned on its head. The prime minister doesn’t account to Parliament; Parliament accounts to — serves — the prime minister.

The University of Moncton’s Donald Savoie, the Canada research chair in public administration and governance, is the author of Court Government and the Collapse of Accountability in Canada and the United Kingdom. Parliament matters, Savoie says, because it is the only institution in Canada that is the democratic link between citizens and their government.

“The chain of accountability, from voters to MP, from MP to prime minister and cabinet ministers, from ministers to their heads of departments and agencies and from senior civil servants to front-line managers to their employees, has broken down,” Savoie wrote in a 2008 Globe and Mail essay.

“We should no longer tolerate court government, by which a political leader with the help of a handful of courtiers shapes and reshapes instruments of power at will… The government of Canada now makes policy by announcement rather than by a policy process.”

University of Toronto political scientist Nelson Wiseman says the emergence of this divine-right “king” can be traced back to the 1972-74 Trudeau Liberal minority government and the introduction of public funding for political parties.

“Once upon a time, the leader had to maintain the confidence of the caucus,” Wiseman continued in an interview. “Now, the caucus is dependent on the leader because a candidate can’t run under the party’s name and receive public funding unless the leader signs the nomination papers.”

The 1974 Election Finance Act triggered a chain reaction, Wiseman says. “Once you elect a party leader by convention or primary… the caucus didn’t elect him so the caucus can’t dump him. Power in Canada is more heavily invested in the executive than in the U.S. and Britain.”

Harper has taken the concentration of executive power to a whole new level, Wiseman continues. “He’s stepped on the gas, he’s accelerating the demise of Parliament.” He cites as an example Finance Minister Jim Flaherty delivering last week’s economic update to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce rather than in Parliament.

There are other, more egregious examples: routine in-camera motions muzzling parliamentary committees and their opposition members, routine closure motions introduced simultaneously with all legislation.

But, Wiseman says, the prime minister’s most dangerous undermining of Parliament to date was former governor general Michaëlle Jean’s decision to grant Harper prorogation in December 2008 to stave off parliamentary defeat.

“Canada’s Parliament,” according to the director of the Constitution Unit at University College, London, “is more dysfunctional than any of the other Westminster parliaments,” he continues. “No prime minister in any Commonwealth country with a governor general, until Harper, has ever sought prorogation to avoid a vote of confidence. Only in Canada has a government secured the prorogation of Parliament to save itself from political defeat and only in Canada has the governor general been party to it.”

University of Manitoba professor emeritus of political studies Paul Thomas says Harper has “extended and deepened” existing trends “towards more concentration of power and more techniques to protect the reputation of the prime minister and the standing of the government.” He warns that “degrees matter in these things.”

“Canada has entered an era of the ‘permanent campaign’ in which the techniques for winning power have been transferred increasingly to the processes of government,” Thomas writes in his paper, Communications and Prime Ministerial Power. There is now “a preoccupation in government with… agenda-setting, news management, information control and spin… a communications culture and climate of control, intimidation and secrecy inside government.”

The parliamentary press gallery has been sidelined, government policy is developed by party apparatchiks, not the public service, and is presented to the public through tightly controlled “message event proposals” away from Parliament and open to vetted attendees and party faithful only.

“Harper seems to want to have a sort of all-pervasive unification and direction of policy-making so nothing gets announced without prior knowledge and approval from the centre,” Thomas continued in an interview. “There is the emergence of this new political class that occupies a kind of constitutional twilight zone. They’re not accounted for in our constitutional order.”

Frances Russell is a Winnipeg writer.

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