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onw COLUMNISTS

The Constitutional Challenge This Trudeau 

Doesn’t Get – Yet


By Peter H. Russell

When Pierre Elliott Trudeau became Leader of the Liberal Party, the constitutional challenge the country faced was clear:  could the surge of Quebec nationalism unleashed by the Quiet Revolution be prevented from shattering the Canadian federation?

The older Trudeau embraced that challenge, and made it the defining project of his regime.

Today, forty-five years later, as Pierre Trudeau’s son takes the helm of the Liberal Party, Canada faces a very different constitutional challenge.

The part of our constitution that is at issue now is not the structure of our federation, but the malfunctioning of our parliamentary democracy.

The malaise of parliamentary democracy began in the elder Trudeau’s era.

It was under Pierre Trudeau that the Prime Minister’s Office, made up of political staffers whose only qualification is their total commitment to the leader, began to emerge as the most powerful institution of government.

Though in practice Pierre Trudeau was not as disrespectful of parliament as is Stephen Harper, he once referred to MPs as “nobodies” once they leave Parliament Hill.

His celebrity status fostered a drift towards a presidential style of government.

Under the majority governments of Jean Chretien, the centralization of power in the office of the prime minister increased, as did the trend towards the Cabinet becoming a focus group for testing proposals developed in the prime minister’s politburo, the PMO. 

With the enforcement of strict party discipline in the House of Commons, government used its majority to control and restrict parliamentary debate.

The democratic deficit resulting from this concentration of power becomes all the more unacceptable under prime ministers who fail to win the support of a majority of the electorate.

The Jean Chretien government never got more than 41%.

Yet he pronounced on one occasion that he had swept the country.

Stephen Harper, whose party’s share of the popular vote has never reached 40 per cent, claims to govern with a popular mandate.

A succession of three minority governments gave the parliamentary scene a little more relevance.

But the partisan warfare of government and opposition parties, driven by an unquenchable thirst for majority government, rendered minority governments dysfunctional.

This left Canadians with the ugly options of majority governments that render parliament irrelevant, or dysfunctional minority governments.

Two years of Conservative majority government have witnessed the apogee of these tendencies: a record number of closures and limiting of parliamentary debate, disdain for the checks and balance of offices of government outside the PMO’s control, topped off by the use of omnibus legislation designed to minimize parliamentary exposure of government initiatives.

No wonder voters are turned off – and none more than the young.

Since the 1980s, while overall turnout of registered voters in federal elections has fallen by about 20 per cent, the falloff has been even greater among the youngest cadre of voters.

Turnout for voters in the 18-25 age group was under 40% in the last election.

Does Justin Trudeau get any of this?

If he has, so far he hasn’t said much about it.

The words “reform of our old institutions” came towards the end of his acceptance speech.

Lets hope that doesn’t indicate the priority of the idea in his agenda.

The young Trudeau is well situated to do something about this yawning democratic deficit - if he does get it.

He has appealed to the young and, in impressive numbers, has attracted them to his cause – whatever that is.

Many of them are disillusioned with the way parliamentary democracy has been working in Canada, and are ready to rally behind a leader who is committed to revivifying (Winston Churchill’s word) our parliamentary institutions.

To take up that challenge, the young Trudeau will not have to negotiate with the provinces.

The part of our constitution that governs the working of parliamentary and cabinet government is the part regulated by parliament itself, through legislation and political practices and principles – constitutional conventions – agreed to by political leaders.

In that sense, his task is easier than his father’s.

His greatest hurdle, as a newly minted party leader, will be to subordinate the partisan interests of his party to the constitutional needs of his country.

His father could do that.

Those of us who care about restoring life and relevancy to parliamentary government in Canada must pray that the son can do that too.

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 : April 16, 2013

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