No 772 Posted by fw, June 9, 2013
“Westminster parliamentary democracy was never about one-man rule. Democracy is being stolen in plain sight, but no one seems to notice.”—Elizabeth May
In a Global interview with Laura Stone, I am quoted as saying that Stephen Harper is “not Canadian.”
Having lunch with a reporter on virtually no sleep is a high-risk proposition, but I didn’t say anything I didn’t mean. I did make it clear that I was not saying Mr. Harper is “not Canadian.” What I did say was that Stephen Harper’s political orientation was informed by an American/ Republican approach to politics. In other words, I am not, like the crazed anti-Obama crowd asking him to produce his birth certificate. The issue is this: unlike any prime minister in our history — Liberal or Conservative — Mr. Harper reflects a political culture foreign to Canada.
Before my interview, I don’t think anyone had mentioned publicly Harper’s participation as a university student in Young Republican summer camp south of the border. (Tom Flanagan escorted a group of his students to the political training ground for Republican campaigners.) Coupled with stories shared by one of his grade school classmates, who told me they had had a very persuasive history teacher who preached the notion that Canada would be better off as a state within the United States, I have observed his political sensibilities with a concern that he was drawn to a different system.
I admit freely that I have no idea how much these influences have shaped his political thinking. To make the statement I did, I was relying on close observation of his behaviour and actions in showing disrespect for Parliament. Stephen Harper as Prime Minister has been steadily undercutting core principles of the traditions of Westminster Parliamentary democracy.
It is a bit ironic, as some tweets have highlighted (some in unprintable abuse), that I was born in the U.S. I grew up in the middle of a constant state of political awareness, informed by both cultures. My U.S.-born mum and my British dad had lively dinner conversations about the nature of democracy. When I’d come home from school full of hopelessly wrong notions imparted by my teachers (such as that the USA was the only democracy in the world), my dad would set me straight. I remember my father explaining the differences in the respective systems — often saying that if only the U.S. Congress had the ability to vote non-confidence in the government, a sitting president could be removed. Once the family moved to Canada, I soaked up the essence of the Westminster Parliamentary system. I loved that we have a system of government premised on respect for traditions. If not for self-restraint in the exercise of powers, a prime minister could become a virtual dictator.
Fundamental notions of the supremacy of Parliament, constitutional monarchy, representative democracy in which every MP is the equal of the other and the prime minister is merely “first among equals” made for a very different approach to governance than the U.S. Constitutional separation of powers and its checks and balances.
In many ways, the two Constitutional documents expressed the differences between the national systems in the inspirational goals of the U.S. foundational document calling for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” contrasted with the stolid, workmanlike Canadian commitment to “peace, order and good government.” I choose “peace, order and good government,” along with the traditional Canadian communitarian values, set against the individualism that is so typical of U.S. ideals.
What makes me say Mr. Harper has strayed from those traditional Canadian values and style of governance? Well, here’s a short list:
1. First prime minister of Canada to prorogue to avoid political difficulties since Sir John A Macdonald, and Macdonald, on return, immediately went to an election.
2. First Canadian prime minister to prorogue twice to avoid political difficulties.
3. Only prime minister in the entire Commonwealth in the last 100 years to prorogue to avoid a political difficulty. (The prime minister of Sri Lanka tried once, but the Governor General refused).
4. First prime minister to run a system of rigid party discipline in parliamentary committees, rejecting any and all amendments to legislation. Previously legislative committee worked quite collaboratively and legislation was nearly always amended prior to Royal Assent.
5. Prime minister Harper was found guilty of contempt of Parliament in refusing to turn over the documents in the Afghan detainee matter. The documents have not been tabled to this day.
6. First prime minister to visibly chafe at the reality that he is not head of state. In Canada Day festivities on Parliament Hill one year, he insisted on accepting the Royal Salute ahead of the former Governor General. The use of Centre Block as a stage for pomp and ceremony for visiting presidents is contrary to our Constitution. Heads of state should be greeted at Rideau Hall. The red carpets and flags in the main hall of Parliament are completely contrary to our traditions.
7. He acts as though he is in charge of Parliament, instead of acknowledging the supremacy of Parliament. This attitude is reflected in telling civil servants they should refer to the Government of Canada, as the “Harper Government.”
8. Understanding Canadian parliamentary democracy includes understanding that every MP is part of the Government of Canada. The Conservative executive is comprised of the PM and his Cabinet (or Privy Council). Mr. Harper is the first prime minister to insist on treating Opposition MPs as though they are not part of the government. This is demonstrated in the systematic exclusion of local Opposition MPs from announcements in their ridings. The Harper approach is to tell local groups they cannot hold events at which federal dollars are involved with their own MP, unless that MP is Conservative. So, local MPs are not given the courtesy of even a chance to sit in the back row, while Conservative MPs from other areas make local announcements.
9. Mr. Harper rejects the role of Parliament as having control of the public purse. MPs are not given enough fiscal background to make wise choices. The former Parliamentary Budget Officer went to court to gain access to such information for MPs. Despite gaining court approval for our right to that information, the new PBO has still not successfully wrested it from the executive.
10. Add to all this the consistent application of U.S.-style attack ads, even outside of writ periods. Stephen Harper is the first political leader in Canadian history to run television advertising more than a year before the election.
Now, none of this is illegal. Any prime minister could have done these things. Think back to the days leading up to November 28, 2005 (the day selected for the non-confidence vote announced in advance by the NDP, Bloc, and Conservative leaders to bring down the Liberal minority government). Former prime minister Paul Martin could have prorogued. Why didn’t he?
The reality is (I am sure) that it never occurred to him, because it was simply not done. Respect for tradition has protected Canadians from abusive use of the potential all-powerful role of the Prime Minister’s Office. A prime minister who does not respect these traditions falls outside the normal spectrum of Canadian political thought.
There are other abuses. The centralization of power in the PMO (not an institution even mentioned in the Constitution, but created first by Trudeau and now morphed into a seriously bloated unaccountable $10 million/year partisan fortress) is the most troubling change. There really is no Cabinet government anymore.
Everything is controlled through the PMO. Respect for an independent and professional civil service has been replaced by political interference in departments and civil servants on a routine basis. Westminster parliamentary democracy was never about one-man rule. Democracy is being stolen in plain sight, but no one seems to notice.
Elizabeth May, MP (born June 9, 1954) is an American-born Canadian Member of Parliament, environmentalist, writer, activist, lawyer, and the leader of the Green Party of Canada. She was the executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada from 1989 to 2006. She became a Canadian citizen in 1978.