McGuinty Acting Like Absolute Monarch of Old

by Peter Russell

Peter RussellPartyocracy is an ugly word for an ugly development – the domination of our system of parliamentary democracy by political parties and their leaders. It is a word coined by political scientist Vaughan Lyon in his recently published book, Power Shift, which calls for a shift of power from party elites to informed citizens.

Partyocracy is a political malady that has crept up on us and threatens to undermine the institutions of parliamentary government with our hardly noticing.

Political parties are not part of the machinery of government provided by our constitution. No where are they mentioned in our constitution.

Nonetheless political parties have become the most powerful institutions of government.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s decision to prorogue the Legislative Assembly is a glaring instance of the trend towards partyocracy.

I refer to it as the Premier’s decision, knowing full well that in law the power to prorogue rests with the Lieutenant Governor.

But not for a moment did Premier McGuinty think that David Olney could do anything other than heed his “advice”.

In assuming that the Crown’s prerogative powers rest in their own hands, first ministers like McGuinty act like absolute monarchs of old.

And in this case, the power to prorogue was used for the premier’s personal convenience and the convenience of his party to go about changing its leaders without the stress of the government his party leads having to be accountable to parliament.

That is partyocracy in spades: party first, responsible government second.

The dominance of party has also insinuated itself into the conduct of government.

In Ottawa and the provincial capitals there has been significant growth in the size and power of political staff in the first minister’s office.

In Ottawa, young, unelected political staffers in the PMO, dedicated to the re-election of the governing party, can outmuscle cabinet ministers on key policy issues.

There are signs that this penetration of political party into the making and communicating of government policy is infecting government at the provincial level.

It would be interesting to know who McGuinty consulted in making his prorogation decision – cabinet colleagues or political staffers?

Yet another sign of party dominance in the conduct of government is the permanent campaign.

As political scientist and Conservative strategist Tom Flanagan explains, the political party that keeps its campaign weapons sharp at all times and uses them strategically is “more likely to build an advantage over its opponents…”

Increasingly we see political parties heeding Flanagan’s advice.

Today, in the discussion of public policy between elections, there is no let-up in the passionate and boringly predictable partisanship characteristic of campaign rhetoric. How refreshing and amazing it is to ever get a kind word from an MP or an MLA about their political opponents.

Indeed in the atmosphere created by permanent campaigns, politicians have enemies, not opponents.

Vaughan Lyon’s remedy for the disease of partyocracy is utopian. He proposes that our parliamentary representatives be selected by citizens participating in partyless mini-parliaments that sit for a month in every constituency. The likelihood of our existing political parties packing it in and accepting such a reform is virtually nil.

But there are some more viable reforms.

At the federal level, Conservative MP Michael Chong is championing a private member’s bill that would reduce party leaders’ control over their caucus colleagues.

As well, Canadians are beginning to appreciate that the down side of parties choosing their leaders through conventions of the extra-parliamentary party is that they undermine the party leader’s accountability to members of their own caucus.

There is also the late Jack Layton’s proposal, mentioned in a previous column, to require a first minister to seek the elected legislature’s consent before advising the Crown to prorogue for more than a week.

Right now, with candidates seeking the leadership of both the federal and Ontario Liberal parties, there is a good opportunity to see where they stand on the creeping disease of partyocracy.

For the truth of the matter is – and it is a troubling truth – that the leaders of  political parties have created a trend that only their successors have the power to reverse.   

Peter Russell is one of Canada's leading constitutional experts, advisor to Governors-General and Professor-Emeritus in Political Science at the 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 : November 06, 2012

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