Democracy Week – Canada’s Challenge

Peter RussellDemocracy week is an apt time to reflect on the advance and the retreat of democracy in the world – and in Canada.

In recent years we have surely seen some real advances. In Mynamar (or Burma if you prefer) and Libya, even if democracy has not been fully achieved, we can see some real progress away from authoritarian government.

But we also see countries moving in the opposite direction, away from liberal democracy and back towards a more authoritarian kind of government. Putin’s Russia is a clear example.

I hate to say this, but Canada is another country that, in its national politics, is retreating - not advancing - in terms of the democratic quality of its government.

Since gaining a parliamentary majority, the Harper Government’s disdain for parliamentary democracy has become painfully evident. In a minority government situation that disdain was barely held in check. But in 2011, when our first-past-the-post system handed the Conservatives a parliamentary majority, the Conservative leadership was free to give full rein to its contempt for parliament.

Though rejected by a majority of voters in the 2011 election, the Conservatives have systematically used their majority of seats to do everything possible to restrict parliamentary debate and discussion of their policies. Cutting off debate a record number of times in the opening weeks of the new parliament, packing a record number of major and unconnected policy changes into a single omnibus bill, and then limiting debate on that bill, top the list.

This style of government – limiting parliament’s role in debating and making government policy - was not invented by the Harper Conservatives.

It actually began in Pierre Trudeau's era. It was under the Trudeau Liberals that the Office of Prime Minister increased tremendously in both size and power.  The PMO’s has emerged as the most powerful institution of government in Ottawa – even though, ironically, the Supreme Court has ruled that it is not an institution of government, so that access to information legislation does not apply to it.

Government dominated by the PMO becomes like a large corporation, doing all it can to control how its product is presented to the public. There is no place in this style of government for sustained and penetrating parliamentary consideration of the government’s policies and activities.

Though this kind of politbureau government did not begin with Harper, it has peeked under his prime ministership – especially when his party has a majority, removing any need to secure opposition support for his policies.

This kind of government is much more presidential than parliamentary. But it is presidential without the check and balance of congress.

In Canadian history, one has to go all the way back to colonial days in the 1830s, to the reign of the  Chateau Clique in Lower Canada and the Family Compact in Upper Canada, to find government as authoritarian as ours now is at the federal level. By authoritarian, I mean, governing through the top-down authority of government rather than through the forging of consensus in the deliberations of elected legislators.

Some commentators dismiss these concerns about government being respectful of parliament as mere “process” issues. The public, they suggest, are concerned only about policy and how it affects their interests. The answer to this kind of comment is that democracy is a process. Once a people cease caring about the processes through which they are governed they are in danger of losing their democracy.

Democracy is not just having an election every few years and letting who win the most seats have their way until the next election. Liberal democracy is as much about how we are governed between elections – how accountable government is to the elected representatives of the people every day it is in power.

During Democracy Week I hope Canadians will think about this. The danger that confronts our democracy is not like that of a ruthless tyrant or a military junta, or a Putin-like plutocracy. It is the danger of our succumbing to the bland, almost banal, style of a ruler who would govern us like the CEO of a large corporation – and without parliament. I hope we care.


Peter H. Russell

Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Principal of Senior College

University of Toronto

About Peter Russell

Peter H. Russell is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is one of Canada’s leading constitutional scholars, has published widely in the fields of aboriginal policy, the judiciary and parliamentary democracy, and is a frequent commentator on Canadian government and politics. He is the founding Principal of Senior College at the University of Toronto. Peter Russell is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Posted date : September 18, 2012

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