Blame it on the Liberals. In August 1919, the Liberals, out of office and mourning the death of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, impulsively imported an American political form into Canada. They opted for a delegated, party-wide leadership convention that blended the party’s grassroots with MPs, creating a hybrid American-Presidential/Congressional/Parliamentary government and caucus.
That convention chose the 44-year-old William Lyon Mackenzie King as Liberal leader. He would go on not only to become Canada’s longest-serving prime minister but the first Canadian prime minister whose mandate and power didn’t arise just from the parliamentary caucus but from all party members from coast to coast to coast whose numbers – and votes – automatically swamp those of MPs.
Within two decades, Canada’s two other parties had also taken the American road: the Progressive Conservatives in 1927 and the CCF/NDP in 1932. Marching in lock-step with American Republicans and Democrats, all three parties adopted the same U.S.-style popular convention to choose the party leader, who, to this day, answers to the grassroots as much as to the parliamentary caucus.
As is often the case with hybrids, they combine the best — or the worst – of both worlds.
Yet it took almost a century — and the polarizing government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper – for Canadians to discover that layering a completely different form of democracy — that is, presidential congressional — onto the British parliamentary system can simply go rogue.
Under Prime Minister Harper, our hybrid system has spun off an effective dictatorship. Harper, not parliament, is supreme. Harper does not answer to parliament. Parliament answers to Harper. The examples are legion:
In early December, 2008, Harper staged an effective coup d’état with the support of the governor general who granted him a prorogation simply to avoid a non-confidence vote he was clearly going to lose. While Harper was at Rideau Hall, Conservative Transport Minister John Baird, currently Canada’s foreign affairs minister, left an indelible impression of the high stakes at play in an interview to the CBC’s Don Newman. The Conservatives, Baird said, would “go over the heads of the members of Parliament; go over the heads, frankly, of the Governor General; go right to the Canadian people,” to argue their case for staying in power. He characterized the coalition as “a pact with the devil” and “an unholy alliance” presumably because the separatist Bloc Quebecois was, while not a coalition member, pledged to support it in office.
It was, of course, nothing of the sort. It was just parliamentary democracy in action, as it has been in two instances just recently in two of Canada’s sister Commonwealth countries — Britain and Australia.
Last September, the British parliament held a vote on whether to participate in military action against Syria. Prime Minister David Cameron, whose Conservatives are in minority and dependent upon a coalition to stay in office, put his government’s life on the line by facing parliament and requesting its support for military intervention. Cameron lost the vote because 50 of his Tory/Coalition MPs joined Labour leader David Miliband’s caucus to oppose war.
Prior to that, the last time a British prime minister had been defeated over an issue of war and peace had been in 1782, 231 years ago. Yet Cameron remained statesmanlike. He accepted the will of Parliament, saying to the packed House of Commons “It is clear to me that the British Parliament does not want to see British military action. I get that and the government will act accordingly.”
Australia has recently provided the world with several textbook examples of rule by parliament, not prime minister or cabinet. In 2010, the Labour Party parliamentary caucus ousted then-prime minister Kevin Rudd to choose Julia Gillard as Labour Party leader and prime minister. Earlier this year, Rudd scored a turnabout, defeating Gillard to become Labour Party leader and prime minister. On both occasions, the vote was confined to the Australian Labour Party caucus.
Prior to her ouster, Gillard bowed to her cabinet and caucus on another issue. The Australian Parliament was set to vote on whether to admit Palestine to United Nations membership. Gillard opposed Palestinian membership while some of her caucus and cabinet favoured it. In the end, Australia abstained from the United Nations vote, indicating the respect Australian political process has for the supremacy of parliament over individual governments, cabinets – and prime ministers.
In none of these instances was there any call to Australian citizens to, in Baird’s memorable but shocking phrases to “go over the heads …of the governor-general, go right to the … people.” Nor was there any hysterical language about “pacts with the devil” and “unholy alliances;” nor calls by any Australian MP to dissolve the House and force an election. Most importantly, the Australian public accepted the prime ministerial musical chairs as perfectly democratic, if a bit amusing.
Quite clearly Australia’s parliament, not its prime minister nor its cabinet, is supreme. As is the case in Britain, the Mother of Parliaments.
However, all Labour’s political infighting did lead to Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National Party (Australia’s equivalent to Canada’s Conservatives) winning a comfortable majority earlier this fall.
There is now a quiver of hope for Canada’s Parliament thanks to Michael Chong, the thoughtful and highly respected Conservative MP for the Ontario riding of Waterloo. He is set to introduce a private members bill to entrench in the Parliament of Canada Act the requirement that all Commons caucuses, both government and opposition — carefully and specifically referred to as “parliamentary parties”, not “grassroots parties”- have the power to launch a leadership review if 15 per cent of the caucus applies for one in writing.
After that, a simple majority of MPs- 50 per cent plus one — could vote to remove the leader and begin a leadership race.
Chong’s bill goes even further, giving party caucuses the right to elect their own chairs (currently appointed by the party leaders) and to call for a review, rejection or readmission of an individual MP, erasing yet another unparliamentary and democratically-debilitating prime ministerial power.
The alarming abuses of power that have crept into Canada’s parliamentary democracy as a result of our obsession inundation with U.S. presidential congressional forms have reached the point they are threatening not just parliamentary government, but democracy itself.
In their 2011 book, Democratizing the Constitution, political scientists Peter Aucoin, Mark D. Jarvis and Lori Turnbull provide a long list of abuses of power and attacks on democracy perpetrated by previous governments, but particularly, this one.
The 1926 Byng-King Affair aside, Canada still has no firm rules, laws or precedents to govern a governor general when a minority prime minister loses the confidence of the House and then wants either to dissolve it, as was the case in 1926 under King; to prorogue it, as under Harper in the 2008 coalition crisis; and finally, under Harper again, with the audacity to dissolve it on March 21,2011, one day before the budget was to be tabled after a parliamentary committee found the Conservative government in contempt of Parliament. It was all the Harper Conservatives could hope for in one tidy package: they didn’t have to answer to being in contempt of Parliament and they got their wish to be defeated by a vote of 156 to 145, forcing the May 2, 2011 federal election.
For the Conservatives, it was pure serendipity. They wanted an election because their polling numbers indicated they were within majority territory for the first time since assuming office in 2006.
However, it left a black mark on Canada’s international stature as a First World democracy. Not only was the contempt finding unique in Canadian history, it was also the first time a government in the 54-nation Commonwealth has ever been found in contempt of parliament.
“Prime Minister Stephen Harper figures prominently in this book because in a period of less than two years he made three unilateral decisions…that illustrate clearly and dramatically how a Canadian prime minister can exercise unconstrained power to prorogue and dissolve Parliament,” the three political scientists write. “And further, that he was prepared to declare on what he would accept — or not accept — as a vote of confidence.”
Chong’s private members bill comes at a crossroads in Canadian democracy. Thanks to the courage of Chong and the small group of Conservative backbenchers supporting him, Canadians at last have an opportunity to have their fast-failing parliamentary democracy turned right-side-up.
But they will need the support of every opposition MP.
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.