In case no one has noticed, Canada’s parliamentary democracy is a tattered rag.
From Canada’s beginning in 1867, Canadian school children received haphazard instruction in the institutions of our system of government.
Provincial school boards fearful of parents alarmed their children were being “politically brainwashed” by “leftist” teachers mostly avoided the topic while the ever-more pervasive mass media continued to bathe successive generations of young Canadians daily in the very different U.S. presidential-congressional universe.
So now, for many Canadians, it’s “Parliament? Snarliament? Who Knows? Who Cares?”
Canada has ended up with the worst of both worlds — a prime minister who over the decades has gathered up U.S. presidential powers but who cannot be stopped by a separate and independent U.S. Congress and is thus free to smash parliamentary democracy and all its institutions at will.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has leaped upon this gaping hole in the public’s grasp of their governmental institutions like a cat on a mouse. Since taking office, he has strode like a bull in a china shop through our enfeebled parliament and confused electorate, overturning virtually every precedent and standard of parliamentary democracy.
He’s made himself into Canada’s King Louis XIV, the Sun King. He summons — and prorogues – parliament whenever it suits his political agenda: ie. whenever he’s in political trouble.
He crams all his legislation for a parliamentary session into one giant omnibus bill, simultaneously joining such wildly disparate matters as a highly controversial appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada, the federal budget, the abolition of the right to strike of certain federal public servants, the building of widely-protested oil pipelines, the elimination of valued environmental agencies and institutions, the muzzling of scientists and finally, the muzzling of parliamentary committees forced now to operate in secrecy should anything they uncover threaten Dear Leader’s chosen path.
And the list goes on.
Now, the penultimate has happened — the one thing that might bring Dear Leader down: bad behaviour by three of his Good Old Boys to whom he gave the golden key to the sinecure of the Senate.
Peter Russell is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Toronto. He believes Harper’s determination to force out Senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau (to whom the PM may have offered a lifeline) “is an abuse of power…it conforms with (Harper’s) authoritarian style of government and his lack of respect for institutions.”
Harper has “a very authoritarian approach to government,” Russell continued in an interview. “That of a CEO or a British monarch in the era of absolute monarchy. That’s the style. Those monarchs did not like to be limited.
“I have never seen a prime minister as bad, no, he is the extreme one. I don’t think anyone comes close to him…
“He is not a parliamentarian,” Russell continues. “Not really. He’s a throwback to an absolute monarch. He’s at the extreme limit.”
Harper’s /Alice In Wonderland/ approach to his wayward senators — ” first the sentence, then the evidence” — is replicated in his reflexive use of prorogation to get out of sticky wickets.
First, of course, was the 2008 coalition crisis when only the governor general saved him from losing his government. Second was the excuse of the Haitian earthquake. Third was to bury the government’s possible complicity, cover-up and misleading of parliament regarding the abuse of Afghan detainees. Third was the ultimate in Sun King trivia — to avoid any possible unseemly political noise that might clash with Canada’s hosting of the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver. And finally, the fourth instance, earlier this fall, to better position himself to face parliament after the nuclear meltdown of the Nigel Wright/Duffy/Wallin affair.
So far, the latter hasn’t worked out so well for him.
Russell is shocked at the extent of Harper’s blatant use of prorogation for personal political ends. Historically, “it’s been used dozens of times and is non-controversial,” Russell says. “It’s as old as parliament.”
Not any more. It may be old. But it’s been made new, threateningly new, to the point of turning our central political institution into a mere cipher at the beck and call of our imperial prime minister.
Harper is also abusing omnibus bills to an extreme never seen before in Canada. Like prorogation, omnibus legislation has a legitimate and very respectable history. It’s used to ensure that when one major policy or piece of legislation is changed, all related policies and laws will be rewritten to conform to it.
“That kind of omnibus bill is normal,” Russell says. “But not Harper’s omnibus bills.” The matters shoehorned into Harper’s omnibus bills “are not related,” he continues.
The government’s crackdown on the right of freedom of speech for its scientists and senior civil servants is “a very worrying thing,” Russell continues. “In a broad sense, it’s a move towards populism. In the 1930s, (populism) came down to an ideological fight between communists and fascists.”
When that kind of polarity occurs politically, Russell, warns, citizens get “fed up” with elected parliaments and democracy. “They don’t care about this. That’s the kind of authoritarian fascist tone you get in democracies when people get very turned off.”
It is at that point that a Mussolini-type figure can rise. “Making the trains run on time for example — can appeal to a large constituency in a country like Canada,’ Russell warns.
“There’s a whole literature on it, leaders who are clever enough to appeal to the anti-intellectual element in society. A lot of people are ripe to be appealed to by an authoritarian leader who knows how to push the right buttons…
“I am really afraid Canadian democracy is threatened. A majority of Canadians don’t like what they see in this authoritarian style and if they get it none the less, then we’ve got an undemocratic government despite the will of the people.”
Russell says Canada has never had a political leader like Harper. “There is a whole literature on authoritarian democracy. We’ve never had a prime minister who went for that populist button. R.B. Bennett had ‘fireside chats’ without consulting his cabinet. His ministers heard about them for the first time when they heard the PM on the airwaves. But he didn’t go very far. Pierre Trudeau didn’t have much use for parliament but respected cabinet,” Russell continues.
“So we’re not quite there (authoritarianism) yet. But we will be if (Harper) wins the next election with a majority.”
Frances Russell was born in Winnipeg and graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and political science. A journalist since 1962, she has covered and commented on politics in Manitoba, Ontario, B.C. and Ottawa, working for The Winnipeg Tribune, United Press International, The Globe and Mail, The Vancouver Sun and The Winnipeg Free Press as well as freelanced for The Toronto Star, The Edmonton Journal, CBC Radio and TV and Time Magazine.
She is the author of two award-winning books on Manitoba history: Mistehay Sakahegan – The Great Lake: The Beauty and the Treachery of Lake Winnipeg and The Canadian Crucible – Manitoba’s Role in Canada’s Great Divide. Both won the Manitoba Historical Society Award for popular history.
She is married with one son and two grandsons and lives in Winnipeg.