The quiet unravelling of Canadian democracy
April 4, 2009
By James Travers, National Affairs Columnist
OTTAWA – For a foreign correspondent reporting some of the world’s grimmest stories, Canada in the ’80s was more than a faraway home. Seen from the flattering distance of Africa, this country was a model democracy. Reflected in its distant mirror was everything wrong with what was then called the Third World. From Cape to Cairo, power was in the hands of Big Men. Police and army held control. Institutions were empty shells. Corruption was as accepted as the steeped-in-pessimism proposition that it’s a duty to clan as well as to family to grab whatever has value before the state inevitably returns to dust.
By contrast and comparison, Canada was a cold but shimmering Camelot. Ballots, not bullets, changed governments. Men and women in uniform were discreet servants of the state. Institutions were structurally sound. Corruption, a part of politics everywhere, was firmly enough in check that scandals were aberrations demanding public scrutiny and sometimes even justice.
Canada today is not Africa then or now. Our wealth and health, and our communal respect for legal, civil and human rights position this favoured country on a higher plane. Still, 10 years of close observation and some 1,500 Star columns lead to an unsettling conclusion: Africa, despite popular perception, despite the Somalias and Zimbabwes, is moving in one direction, Canada in another. Read the headlines, examine the evidence, plot the trend line dots and find that as Africans – from turnaround Ghana to impoverished Malawi – struggle to strengthen their democracies, Canadians are letting theirs slip.
There, dictatorships are now more the exception than the rule and accountability is accepted as a precondition for stability. Here, power and control are increasingly concentrated, and accountability honoured more in promise than practice. Canadian politicians flout the will of voters and parties. Once-solid institutions are being pulled apart by rising complexity and falling legitimacy. Scandals come and go without full public exposure or cleansing political punishment. If not yet lost, Camelot is under siege.
Laughter or disbelief would have been my ’80s response to any gloomy prediction that within the next 20 odd years Canada’s iconic police force would twist the outcome of a federal election. I would have rejected out of hand the suggestion that Parliament would become a largely ceremonial body incapable of performing its defining functions of safeguarding public spending and holding ministers to account. I would have treated as ridiculous any forecast that the senior bureaucracy would become politicized, that many of the powers of a monarch would flow from Parliament to the prime minister or that the authority of the Governor General, the de facto head of state, would be openly challenged.
Yet every one has happened and each has chipped away another brick of the democratic foundations underpinning Parliament. Incrementally and by stealth, Canada has become a situational democracy. What matters now is what works. Precedents, procedures and even laws have given way to the political doctrine of expediency.
No single party or prime minister is solely to blame. Since Pierre Trudeau first dismissed backbenchers as nobodies and began drawing power out of Parliament and into his office, all have contributed to the creep toward a more authoritarian, less accountable Canadian polity.
Some of the changes are understandable. Government evolves with its environment, and that environment has become more complex even as the controls have become wobblier, less connected. The terrible twins of globalization and subsidiarity – the sound theory that services are most efficiently delivered by the administrative level closest to the user – now sorely test the ability of national legislatures to respond to challenges at home and abroad. Think of it this way: Trade, the economy and the environment have all gone global while the things that matter most to most of us – health, education and the quality of city life – are the guarded responsibility of provinces and municipalities.
Politics and politicians being what they are, the reflex response is to grasp for all remaining power. Once secured, it can be used to exercise political will more easily by overruling rules and rewriting or simply ignoring laws. Power alone is effective in cross-cutting through the silo walls that isolate departments and frustrate co-ordinated policies. Important to all administrations, unfettered manoeuvring room is that much more important to minority governments desperate to maximize limited options and minimize opposition influence.
Good for prime ministers, that’s not nearly good enough for the rest of us. It fuels an inexorable power drift to the opaque political centre, creating what Donald Savoie, Canada’s eminent chronicler of Westminster parliaments, calls “court government.” It’s his clear and credible view that between elections, prime ministers now operate in the omnipotent manner of kings. Surrounded by subservient cabinet barons, fawning unelected courtiers and answerable to no one, they manage the affairs of state more or less as they please.
Prime ministers are freeing themselves from the chains that once bound them to voters, Parliament, cabinet and party. From bottom to top, from citizen to head of state, every link in those chains is stressed, fractured or broken.
One man’s short political career helps explain how those connections fail. David Emerson, a respected former forestry executive and top B.C. bureaucrat, is recalled as one of Paul Martin’s most competent ministers. Almost forgotten now is his corrosive effect on public trust.
In 2006, Emerson ran for re-election in Vancouver-Kingsway, winning easily as a Liberal. Weeks after promising to be Stephen Harper’s “worst nightmare,” Emerson was named to the Conservative cabinet in the trade portfolio he had long wanted and was well-suited for. His rationale was simple: There’s no point in being in the capital if there’s no real possibility of influencing the nation’s course.
Emerson is an honest man and his motives genuine. But in severing the link between ballots and voter choice, he made nonsense of the electoral process.
Emerson was not alone in dripping acid on that rare winter election. But where he applied an eyedropper, then RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli emptied a bucket. With Liberals nursing an opinion-poll lead and Martin on track for a second minority, Zaccardelli dropped an unprecedented, still unexplained bombshell. In a private letter to the NDP, one the RCMP went to extraordinary lengths to ensure became public, the force confirmed its criminal investigation into rumoured leaks of the Liberal decision not to tax income trusts.
Conservative strategist Tom Flanagan candidly identifies that letter as the election’s tipping point. Liberal scandals and ethics soared again to the top of voter minds, sending Martin tumbling and Liberals packing.
No political malfeasance was found – one bureaucrat was charged with gaining personal benefit. More remarkably, neither Zaccardelli nor the RCMP has been forced to fully deconstruct such an egregious intervention in the electoral process. To their lasting shame, all three federal parties, each to protect its interests and minimize embarrassment, chose to leave hanging the rotten odour of banana republic politics. Zaccardelli, defrocked for conflicting testimony in the Maher Arar affair, is in France, safe and quiet in an Interpol sinecure.
If Zaccardelli’s intervention was wrong, Emerson’s analysis was right: Being a bright, competent and energized backbencher in an increasingly ritualistic, theatrical and impotent House of Commons is an exercise in futility.
Parliament’s problem is that it is patently dysfunctional. Its list of recent failures is long and instructive. It didn’t notice the millions of Quebec sponsorship dollars shifting from the treasury to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s office or the runaway costs of the Liberal long-gun registry. Starved of resources and already ineffectual, its committees became a standing joke when Conservatives secretly wrote a 200- page manual to discourage curiosity about, say, alleged attempts to buy dying Chuck Cadman’s Commons vote, or the ruling party’s suspect in-and-out campaign money-laundering scheme.
It’s so essential for the ruling party to keep Parliament in the dark that its independent officers are now forced to struggle for the funds and freedom to do their jobs. Need proof? Liberals and Tories nurtured a cottage industry that taught how to hide public information vital to open democracy by, among other tricks, insisting on untraceable verbal reports and scribbling sensitive information on removable Post-it notes. Conservatives in opposition promised to create a budget officer to follow how Ottawa spends hundreds of billions. In power they are yanking the leash on Kevin Page, the newest watchdog.
Given those frustrations – and others ranging from voting as the party demands, not as their conscience dictates, to the growing irrelevance of the Commons as a forum for shaping public policy – it’s hardly surprising that most MPs, like David Emerson, want to be where the action is – in cabinet. Except that it’s not.
Strong cabinets are dusty relics. Long gone are the days when powerful regional ministers could flex their muscles with prime ministers who were merely first among equals. Under Chrétien, cabinets became little more than focus groups. Stephen Harper is going farther, making most ministers anonymous and keeping others silent when tough questions are asked.
Far more powerful than ministers are the political professionals who form a protective inner circle beholden only to the prime minister, not voters. Those appointed apparatchiks are now so entrenched that even senior ministers – Martin’s deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan was one – have trouble penetrating the barrier around “The Boss.”
So who influences the prime minister, who moulds the putty of public policy? Well it’s certainly not deputy ministers, those non-partisan civil servants who once took personal pride in speaking truth to power and kept resignations ready for the moment ministers crossed the line separating public interest from partisan advantage. For mandarins, Job One is no longer providing policy options, it’s protecting ministers and the prime minister from political blowback. How much that’s changed is measured by last year’s report on the leak of a sensitive Canadian diplomatic memo suggesting Barack Obama was saying one thing publicly and another privately about renegotiating free trade.
In finding no culprit, an investigation led by the Clerk of the Privy Council, Ottawa’s top public servant, pointed fingers at bureaucrats for circulating the memo too widely. But as the Star exposed at the time, civil servants didn’t leak. It was political operatives in the Prime Minister’s Office and in Canada’s Washington embassy who recklessly jeopardized this country’s interests to assist U.S. Republicans. Once again, the guilty went free.
If not Parliament, ministers or mandarins, who can hold the Prime Minister accountable? Apparently not political parties. On their way to their party’s Winnipeg convention last year Conservatives, those grassroots activists who planted the seeds of the Reform movement and nurtured them until they grew into a government, were told they had become only one among many “stakeholders.” Then, in a cameo convention appearance, the Prime Minister broke the news that hard times rendered the party’s defining conservative framework at least temporarily null and void.
Liberals, facing a crisis of their own, responded with even more extreme pragmatism. Having reached the conclusion Stéphane Dion had to be replaced before Parliament reconvened for a critical January session, Liberals bent, folded and mutilated party rules to narrow the leadership contenders to one and anoint Michael Ignatieff interim chief. Whatever the urgency or justification, chattering-class Liberals effectively stripped the rank and file of the right and responsibility to choose a leader.
With parties pushed to the sidelines, only the Governor General remains as a political check on the prime minister. But even that control is suspect after last year’s pre-Christmas coalition crisis. Here’s how far outspoken minister John Baird said Conservatives were willing to go to hang on to power. “I think what we want to do is basically take a time out and go over the heads of the members of Parliament, go over the heads, frankly, of the Governor General, go right to the Canadian people.”
Going over the head of the de facto head of state is a radical notion. But so, too, is the accelerating erosion of Parliament, cabinet, independent oversight and political parties. Extreme is now ho-hum in a country where the prime minister can override his own law to force an election, where accountability is little more than a campaign bumper sticker, where the police play politics and where there is no connection between scandal and punishment for those in privileged places.
Without meaningful engagement, participatory democracy is an oxymoron. Why vote if the winning candidate then switches sides? Why be a member of a powerless Parliament? Why be a minister in a cabinet without influence or a mandarin in a politically polluted bureaucracy? Why join a party to be spectator?
Responses can be found in the record low turnout of the last election. Or the dwindling number who consider federal politics relevant to real life or bother to join parties.
Fortunately, there are fixes. As Barack Obama proved in the U.S presidential campaign – and Premier Dalton McGuinty learned in Ontario when teenagers used Facebook to drive proposed drivers’ licence restrictions into a dead end – the combination of motivated citizens and enabling technology is extraordinary.
If mad-as-hell voters can take back a riding, as they did in Vancouver by rejecting Emerson’s adopted party, then surely MPs can recapture control of Parliament. It’s possible, too, that ministers, bureaucrats and police officers can be forcefully reminded that their public duty is to the people, not to politicians. Even prime ministers can be told they are not monarchs.
Appealing as it sounds, advocacy requires effort. It’s so much easier to go with the flow, to let situational democracy evolve with each reflex, stopgap, jerry-rigged response to every new policy demand and political threat. But that leads away from accountability and toward the Big Man culture that Africa is finally throwing off and has no place in Canada.
If war is too serious to leave to generals, then surely democracy is too important to delegate to politicians.
(Published courtesy of the Toronto Star)