A Prime Minister More Powerful Than Any

On Wednesday, a minor and largely irrelevant minister was replaced by a minor and largely irrelevant minister, and with that the cabinet shuffle was complete. Thus, a prime minister who dominates the political landscape more than any before him, a prime minister with unprecedented control of Parliament and the machinery of government, a prime minister whose mastery of his party and caucus is absolute, confirmed once again that he likes things just the way they are.

The man who once denounced the excessive power of Louis XVI is now Napoleon I, Emperor of the Canadians. And the Emperor intends to remain the Emperor.

For those of us who think the hyper-centralization of power is both undemocratic and a horrible way to run an organization – no matter who the prime minister is – this is all very depressing. For years, we’ve watched centralization get worse and thought, “this is it. It can’t get any worse.” And it got worse.

Now it has reached its apex. Or maybe not. Maybe it will get worse.

But could it get better? We can dream of a different political reality, of course. But is there any rational reason to hope? Perhaps.

The power in the prime minister’s office “is unprecedented,” says political scientist Bruce Hicks. “But I also think it’s temporary.” To understand why, says Hicks, we first have to understand why Stephen Harper is the most powerful prime minister ever.

As far back as William Lyon Mackenzie King, PMs have been drawing power into the Prime Minister’s Office. Pierre Trudeau accelerated the process. Brian Mulroney and Jean Chr├ętien kept it up. Stephen Harper pushed it further.

But this is only part of the story, says Hicks, who compared prime ministerial power in Canada with that in our Westminster cousins – the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand – in a paper recently published in the Canadian Parliamentary Review.

“We follow party discipline far more loyally than any of the other Westminster models,” Hicks notes. In these other countries, there’s an expectation that MPs will sometimes vote against their government.”

In part, Hicks suggests, this reflects Canada’s culture of deference to authority. It also stems from advanced “presidentialization” of Canadian politics, in which elections are all about party leaders. Also contributing is the bloated size of the Canadian cabinet relative to the number of MPs, because backbenchers who hope to get into cabinet one day won’t question orders from the PMO, and with so many spots in the cabinet, that includes most backbenchers.

Unfortunately, there’s no reason to expect any of that will change. But another critical factor may not last.

In the past, parties in power always had factions, and ministers with their own political clout, and these provided at least a modest check on the power of the prime minister. “In the old Progressive Conservative (party), you had Flora MacDonald who ran for the leadership and had her own base of support. You had Joe Clark, who was a former prime minister,” Hicks says. When Mulroney said he was going to cut foreign aid, Clark threatened to resign. Mulroney backed down. That’s inconceivable today.

There’s nothing like this in the Conservative party because it is new and Stephen Harper built it from the ground up. “It’s a corporation in which one person controls all the mechanisms for fundraising, for distribution, for marketing, for organizing nomination contests in everybody’s riding. It’s all centralized. That’s unique to this party.”

Harper has never had to deal with ministers who wield their own political clout. “The closest one you had was Peter MacKay,” thanks to his leadership of the Progressive Conservative party. But when the PMO told MacKay he couldn’t hire the man he wanted to be his chief of staff, MacKay bit his lip and did as he was told. Ever since, he’s been a loyal soldier. Today, he has the political stature of a hobbit.

Next to the prime minister, all the cabinet ministers do. That’s not an accident. Napoleon suffers no rivals.

But Stephen Harper cannot be prime minister forever and while it’s possible that there could be a transition from one Emperor to another – if Harper could anoint an unchallenged successor and hand over the status quo exactly as is – that’s unlikely. By keeping his ministers weak, Harper has ensured there is no one with the presence to pull that off.

Which means there will be a fight for the leadership. Which means factions. Which means ministers with their own power bases. And a prime minister who must listen to them. It wouldn’t be a strong check on the PMO, but it would be a check, and that’s more than there is now.

Of course there are many other proposals for curtailing the PMO. Many are suggested in the Donner Prize-winning Democratizing the Constitution. Political scientist Peter Russell and others are particularly keen on the creation of a “Cabinet manual,” which would spell out constitutional conventions.

But nothing will change unless the prime minister wants it to. And he manifestly does not. Hicks even worries that a cabinet manual produced under the current circumstances wouldn’t be an accurate and respected document, as the new U.K. and New Zealand cabinet manuals are. The prime minister would control its development, he says. And he would ensure that it retroactively validates his false claims about coalitions and the Constitution.

“Stephen Harper went to England, stood next to (British prime minister) David Cameron, who leads a coalition government, and told the press that the only reason Cameron could form a government is that he won the most seats in the previous election,” Hicks marvels. “Well, their cabinet manual states the complete opposite. But there’s the prime minister, standing next to a colleague, re-writing their constitution for them, even after they’ve gone to the trouble of defining it.”

So what are reformers left with? We’ll have to wait – for the Emperor to meet his Waterloo in 2015, or to retire when it pleases him.

But at least we can be reasonably confident that after Stephen Harper, there will not another quite like him.