Contempt of Parliament is now the Default State of Canadian Democracy
As Parliament and Canadians ready themselves for the unrolling of one of the juiciest Conservative scandals in Canada’s colourful history – the Mike Duffy, Pamela Walin, Patrick Brazeau Senate Expenses Affair – one of the country’s leading political scientists says the sitting prime minister is going out of his way to show his contempt of parliament.
“He’s very smart, he’s very shrewd,” University of Toronto professor of government Nelson Wiseman says.
“I believe accurately that most Canadians do not understand how parliament works, don’t understand parliamentary traditions and they don’t much care,” he continued in an interview. “And he (Prime Minister Stephen Harper) was vindicated in that view in the last election when he was promoted from being a minority prime minister to being a majority prime minister.”
The Liberal sponsorship scandal provided the opening by propelling the shiny new Alberta-inspired, Alberta-spawned and Alberta-led Conservative Party under University of Calgary economics graduate Stephen Harper into power a decade ago.
Now it’s Harper’s turn to face history. “He’s seen how parliament works under other PMs and has adopted all of their techniques and rules that they used and even pushed them further,” Wiseman says. “This has been a trend for a while in Canadian politics but I would say executive powers have grown generally throughout the western world for various reasons including communications, international summits, the way media have changed.”
Asked to explain why Canada’s parliamentary democracy has veered so sharply off the rails, Wiseman says the difference between Britain, Australia and New Zealand on the one hand and Canada on the other is “there’s something called a cabinet manual that those jurisdictions have that we don’t.”
The manual codifies the ancient and largely unwritten rules of parliamentary democracy. But it also depends on history, tradition and the democratic spirit itself to make it work. Unfortunately, as recent history attests, history, tradition and ancient democratic forms, conventions and particularly, spirit, hold little sway in today’s Canada.
In December, 2008, Canadians got to see our governmental shortcomings up close. The newly-elected prime minister (Harper) had lost the confidence of parliament but was able to wheedle an inexperienced governor general into doing his bidding and handing the government to him and his party during a climactic – and fated – meeting in Rideau Hall.
By contrast, Wiseman continues, “in Britain when they have an election, the prime minister who has just been defeated vacates 10 Downing Street that same day.”
Canada, he suggests, has “gone off the rails” thanks to our proximity to the U.S. and its starkly different separation of powers governance.
“The authoritarianism is completely unsettling,” Wiseman continues. “Parliament is withering away. The government has been replaced by the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) and it’s just a referendum on the prime minister when you have an election.”
Harper has pushed the envelope even further, Wiseman continues. “Harper is also trying to change the convention that parliament makes the government to the government runs parliament.”
He succeeded the first time in 2008 thanks in part to the behaviour of John Baird, who led large demonstrations on the streets close to Rideau Hall while Harper was meeting with the governor general, the poor performance of Liberal leader Stephane Dion and a much more compelling presentation by Harper.
On the eve of the May 2, 2011 election, the election that gave Harper his long-sought “strong, stable, majority Conservative government”, Prof. Peter Russell, one of Canada’s leading political scientists, issued an unusual and heartfelt plea to Canadian voters.
Here’s some of Prof. Russell’s words:
“Because I really fear…this may sound extreme…that if the Harper Conservatives were to win a majority in the House of Commons, it would be an indication that parliamentary crime pays…
“We’re the fourth oldest democracy in the world. I treasure it…[don’t put it] in the hands or people who don’t treasure it or respect it…[and] try to prevent a majority from killing it…
“I’ve never been more worried in my entire lifetime of democratic citizenship in Canada about the possible outcome of an election.”
If Peter Russell was afraid in 2011, how worried should Canadians be today as the 2015 election looms on the horizon?