Less Parliamentary Than Pharaonic
Pierre Trudeau centralized power in the prime minister’s office so much he was accused of running a “presidential” government. Brian Mulroney centralized power still more and was attacked by the Liberals for his “arrogant style of leadership.” Jean Chrétien made the PMO so powerful he was accused of running a “friendly dictatorship.”
“With the lack of checks and balances, the prime minister in Canada is perhaps the most unchecked head of government among the democracies,” noted Gordon Robertson, the former clerk of the Privy Council. Robertson said that in 2004. He was indisputably right.
But he also said the trend “has reached its peak, I think, in the Chrétien regime.” About that, he was wrong.
Like the opposition leaders before him, Stephen Harper complained about all this. Like the prime ministers before him, Stephen Harper made it much worse.
And that was before he got the majority of his dreams. Now, with control of the House and the Senate, a caucus obedient as sled dogs, a cabinet of bobbleheads, and the Official Opposition composed mostly of wide-eyed rookies, the prime minister’s command of the machinery of government is unprecedented.
And remember the context. For years, Harper dismissed Parliament’s demands, belittled its privileges, and closed its doors as and when he pleased. Finally, in a historic verdict, his government was found in contempt -and the prime minister shrugged it off like an elephant bitten by a mosquito.
In 2004, Brian Mulroney said the PMO had become so dominant Parliament was in “a state of collapse.”
Seven years later, the Constitution has been turned upside down, in fact if not law, and Parliament serves at the prime minister’s pleasure.
And the democratic basis for the astonishing accumulation of power in the hands of one man? On election day, 61 per cent of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot, and 39 per cent of those votes were for the Conservatives. Stephen Harper’s mandate for unprecedented power thus comes from a minority of a fraction of the people of Canada.
What’s that I hear? Ah, yes. Angry cries of “bias!” That sounds familiar. During the election, lots of people wrote to say I was hostile to their team and shockingly partial to the other guys. Conservatives. Liberals. NDPers. They all agreed I was biased against them.
Inspired, I thought carefully about how I’ve voted over the decades. And it turns out there is indeed a consistent bias.
I always vote against the most powerful party.
Like all biases, the sources of my predilection may not be entirely clear to me. Maybe I was bullied as a kid. Who knows? But I can be sure there is, at least in part, a rational basis for my electoral history.
If power is to be effective -if it is to produce good decisions and get things done well -it must be checked. Forget fascist dictators making trains run on time. That’s simple stuff. Fascist dictators are dandy for that. But on complex issues, unchecked power is remarkably inefficient and ineffective.
That’s because the essential precondition of good decisions is a reasonably accurate understanding of reality. Which sounds simple enough. But seeing things as they are is actually a constant struggle. It cannot be done effectively by the one brilliant guy in charge. Or by the one brilliant guy and his brilliant staff. They only know what they know, which is so much less than all there is to know. Plus, they’re working in a bubble. Groupthink is inevitable. It’s not an accident that dictators and their entourages so often become badly deluded and detached from reality.
The alternative to the concentration of power is distribution: Let people and institutions contend to get things done as they wish them to be done. That sounds messy and inefficient. And it can be. But, in general, more decentralization means more information, more perspectives, and more debate. Which tends to produce a better apprehension of reality. And better decisions.
It’s why free markets work and Kremlin-style control doesn’t. It’s why liberal democracies are so much more creative and adaptable than feudal societies. It’s why the American constitution -which disperses power and subjects it to “checks and balances” -is the world’s most stable and successful.
In theory, of course, the person who holds unchecked power can distribute it and encourage the open discussion and debate that is essential to good results. But that never seems to happen. It’s just not human nature to give up power.
And it’s definitely not Stephen Harper’s nature.
Or maybe I’m being unkind. “The extreme centralization in the PMO, the control over messaging, the relentlessly partisan tone of Parliament -all result from the perpetual electioneering that is the fate of minority parliaments,” wrote journalist Andrew Potter in Maclean’s several weeks ago. Give Harper a majority, Potter concluded, and he will ease up on the reins.
I think Potter is wrong about minority parliaments. They can and do work well when leaders want to make them work. But Potter is certainly right about the “perpetual electioneering” of the last minority.
He may also be right that Harper will relax his grip now that he has a majority. We shall see.
But why should something so important be decided by one man alone? That’s the issue, not Stephen Harper.
The system is broken. Year after year, prime minister after prime minister, one party after the other, power has been centralized. Our government is less parliamentary than pharaonic.
And the only hope for change is the Pharaoh himself.