“When the government of the day ceases to be responsible to Parliament, responsible government is lost and democracy is imperilled.”
So writes former Conservative, now independent, Edmonton St. Albert MP Brent Rathgeber in his recent book, Irresponsible Government: The Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada.
Responsible government is the foundation of parliamentary as opposed to popular democracy. The government of the day is responsible, answerable to, accountable to, ALL the members of parliament – not simply those of its political stripe – and through them, to ALL Canadians, also not simply those of its party stripe.
But Canada’s proximity to the U.S. with its polar opposite separation of powers democracy has washed over Canada and Canadians for so long that Canadians have flipped their parliamentary democracy on its head.
Canada’s parliament is now a damp squib, a meek handmaid to power. Parliament is ruled by the prime minister and the cabinet , not the other way around. Conservative MPs see themselves as obedient servants of the party, cabinet and prime minister, not representatives of their constituents.
You could call it “executive or presidential democracy.” It certainly is the polar opposite of parliamentary democracy.
“The current government prefers to govern by order-in-council and executive edict as opposed to having to answer to an occasionally meddlesome Parliament,” Rathgeber writes. “As a result, the executive has so neutered the institutions of Parliament as to render them nearly impotent, practically unable to fulfill their constitutional duty to hold the executive to account…(T)o the greatest extent possible, it prefers to run all aspects of Parliament rather than be accountable to it.”
This crippling of the democratic commons is the polar opposite to the intentions of the barons of the English realm who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215.
Rathgeber is one of those rare parliamentarians who actually understands and believes in parliamentary government to the point he sacrificed a likely cabinet position in order to defend it.
Sections of Rathgeber’s book should be taught in every Canadian school. Here are some samples:
“Canadian voters elect legislators; they do not select governments…(I)f democracy is to be maintained, the legislative branch must remain supreme and the government accountable and responsible to it…”
The most corrosive and dangerous development in Canada’s fully Americanized parliamentary system is the highly centralized power of the PMO and cabinet with a majority government. Add the now-complete stifling of the rights of ordinary MPs to say or do anything on their own, and Canada has degenerated into a virtual dictatorship.
And that’s without including the ability of the prime minister to prorogue, recess and dissolve parliament at whim.
Compare this sorry state of affairs to the parliamentary system in place in Britain and Australia, Canada’s sister parliamentary democracies. “(British Prime Minister) Margaret Thatcher was deposed by her own caucus, and twice in the last four years the Australia Labour Party has rejected a leader (and prime minister) and then rejected the replacement on the will of the caucus,” Rathgeber writes. “This is normal; this is parliamentary democracy as it should be, where the leader leads the caucus but does not dominate it. The aforementioned Westminster democracies, which have not fallen prey to creeping presidentialism , are thought to be much more functional by academics…”
The dysfunction of the current parliament has its origins in the authoritarian mindset of the prime minister and the 100 or so individuals who staff his office. Rathgeber is merciless when it comes to describing the culture that has sprung up within it.
“The socialization and indoctrination effects of the PMO sub-culture cannot be overstated,” he writes. I have witnessed young, seemingly normal and well-adjusted college graduates enter the PMO and within six months, morph into arrogant, self-absorbed zealots, with an inflated sense of importance and ability.”
He goes on to warn ominously that “the inability of (the PMO) to speak truth to power results in one of the most influential and powerful structures in Ottawa having absolutely no ability to serve as a check on either itself, the prime minister, or the government…
“It will require strong commitment and intestinal fortitude from those with legislative authority if they are ever to rescue parliamentary supremacy from an executive government intent on its demise.”
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.