Peter Russell, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Toronto, believes any one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's three key public statements last November would change Canada from a parliamentary democracy into a populist democracy.
During that climactic week, Harper said the opposition "does not have the right to take power without an election." Then he said all coalitions must first be presented to the electorate during an election campaign. Finally — and in Russell's view, most troubling — Harper claimed the Governor General cannot exercise the Crown's traditional reserve power to call on another party to form a government should an existing government fall on a vote of confidence and must instead automatically grant the prime minister dissolution and another election.
That final declaration "raises the most serious problems for Canada's parliamentary democracy," Russell said in Winnipeg Oct. 15. He was delivering the eighth Templeton Lecture sponsored by the University of Manitoba political studies department.
"Mr. Harper's view that only the electorate can effect a change in government across party lines would, in effect, take away Parliament's role in the formation of government."
Harper's populist version of parliamentary democracy means if a new government was defeated on its first throne speech, the Governor General would have no choice but to dissolve Parliament and send Canadians back to the polls immediately.
Canadians, already wearied from three federal elections within the last five years, could see more — much more — of the same, perhaps more frequently, into the forseeable future.
Canada, one of the world's oldest parliamentary democracies, "is fast becoming a basket case — the banana republic of the parliamentary world," Russell continued.
He urged Canada to follow New Zealand's example.
Canada's parliamentarians, he said, should strike a parliamentary committee and seek all-party written agreement on the principles of responsible (to Parliament) government, the role of the Governor General and the calling of elections.
In contrast to the presidential/congressional model, where the president's mandate comes directly from the people, as does that of Congress, voters in parliamentary democracies do not elect either a government or a prime minister. They elect a popular house, "the peoples' house of parliament," Russell said. And the licence to govern rests in "commanding the confidence" of that house.
Canada's parliamentary dysfunction arises from three factors, Russell continued. Citizens are poorly educated about their parliamentary government while swamped daily with blanket media coverage of the U.S. separation of powers system. Politicians are hardly better informed. They all regard minority governments as "unfortunate and temporary interludes" between majorities.
Finally, Canadians and their politicians cling to a "first-past-the-post" electoral system that rewards regionalism and sectionalism in an already dangerously regionalized nation.
The system routinely elects "false" majority governments that command support from only a minority of Canadians.
Russell's statistics tell the tale. Canada has had 14 "majority" governments out of 27 elected since 1921. Only three were genuine, that is, chosen by over 50 per cent of Canadians. Even given first past the post's tendency to reward regional concentrations of political support, fully 13 of Canada's 27 federal governments since 1921 have had to depend on one or more opposition parties — usually briefly — to stay in office.
As a sign of Canada's crumbling national cohesion and identity, three of the latter have been elected within the last five years.
Perhaps the most unfortunate casualty of last fall's crisis was the very idea of coalition government itself, Russell said. And Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff shoulders equal blame with Harper. Ignatieff dropped the coalition "like a pair of smelly socks" after he became Liberal leader.
Canadian parliamentary democracy cannot afford this "smearing" of coalitions, Russell continued. "A country like ours in which no single political party is very popular and voter choice is divided among five or more parties is likely to produce parliaments in which no party has a majority. In minority parliaments, alliances between parties are essential to make Parliament functional."
Noting that the distance between the parties on most issues is not huge, Russell said combining with other parties does not mean "selling the soul of what a party stands for."
Rather, it enhances democracy, creating "policies that can be supported by parties representing a majority of the people," he continued. "And isn't that what democracies should be all about?"
Frances Russell is a Winnipeg author and political commentator.