Power, Parliament and the Prime Minister

Donner winners Mark Jarvis and Lori Turnbull argue that the Prime Minister has become too powerful.

In the House, the prime minister and government have considerable control over day-to-day operations. This allows governments not only to set the agenda, but to carry it out with ease. The prime minister commands the steadfast loyalty of his MPs, largely through a carrot-and-stick approach; co-operative MPs might be rewarded with cabinet posts or coveted committee positions, while rogues can be — and at times are — punished with removal from caucus or even barred from running as a candidate for the party in future elections. All of these are vestiges of prime ministerial power. The party caucus has little leverage with which to counterbalance the prime minister’s power because party leaders are chosen (and replaced) by the party at large, rather than by the caucus. Thus, the government’s MPs have no effective mechanism through which to stand their ground against a very powerful leader or effectively represent his or her constituents.

In a rebuttal, F.H. Buckley argues that the Canadian system is preferable to the current American system.

That Canada’s current economic situation is better isn’t necessarily an argument for our Parliament (as one wag joked on Twitter, it’s actually an argument for adopting China’s system of governance). That the Westminster model is more efficient has been noted by various observers over the last few years as the U.S. Congress has descended into dysfunction. But a simple either/or debate oversimplifies matters. The American system isn’t inherently dysfunctional: one of its biggest problems is a rule that didn’t exist until 1975. (The Senate is ripe for reform.)

Buckley concludes with a nod to Ruth Ellen Brosseau.

The genius of the Anglo-Canadian parliamentary system is the manner in which a prime minister is given the incentive to advance the national interest. A party leader who seeks support across the country must have the interest of the country as a whole in mind. If he concentrates government spending in one region only, he will lose support in other regions. That’s why strong a prime minister and a Parliament of nobodies better serves the country than the separation of powers and earmark-seeking Congressmen, like the late John Murtha of Pennsylvania (of the John Murtha Airport, John Murtha Center, etc.).

I’ll take Ruth Ellen Brosseau M.P. over Murtha any day. The comely member for Berthier-Maskinongé might not possess the legislative skills or ability to bring home the bacon, but a Parliament of Ruth Ellens more closely resembles the idealized assembly described by Edmund Burke in his Address to the Electors of Bristol, an assembly “of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide.”

Setting aside the particulars cited—and why Ms. Brosseau has to be referred to here as “comely”—what is the choice here? Between a powerless nobody elected as a placeholder and a power-abusing Congressman elected because of his ability to “bring home the bacon?” Why is that the choice? Are there not dozens of examples of congressmen who have used their individual power and authority in a way that is consistent with what we’d like to see from our elected representatives? Isn’t this just an argument to ban earmarks?

As I read Mr. Burke’s address, it is an appeal to the judgment of the individual representative; that each is not merely a conduit for his or her constituents, but that “your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” That, in a way, is precisely what many of us seek for the parliamentary system. But in this case the problem is not that MPs are bound to their constituents, but that MPs are bound to their parties (or, more specifically, their party leaders).

If we’re deferring to ancient texts, I’ll go with Latin: primus inter pares. First among equals. That’s what our Prime Minister is supposed to be. Instead—and contrary to the either/or argument—we have something like a president who commands Parliament. The current U.S. Congress is not the alternative. It is merely a system that, in its own way, is in need of reform. If we reform ours, there are lessons to be found in how theirs has bogged down. But this is not a choice between Westminster and America. It’s a choice between the system we have and the system we’d like to have.

Power, Parliament and the Prime Minister

  1. Bingo! Maybe our model should be more Westminsterlike, and have the PM chosen by – and answerable to – the caucus.

    • My agument too when the LPC decided to go with its supporters category, allowing anyone with a liberal declared affiliation to vote for their leader. In away it’s a good idea – widen the net, increase the likelihood of not picking an unpopular dud again. But man what’s in for the caucus? How do you bind a popularly elected leader to his caucus?
      If we just made that one change in our system, half of our overcentralized, party circus first, and some of our headaches would at least diminish.

  2. ‘But this is not a choice between Westminster and America. It’s a choice
    between the system we have and the system we’d like to have.’

    Exactly. We need a system that works for us, instead of constantly borrowing someone elses.

  3. I think the Canadian and American systems are threatened by the same thing: shameless actors using rules and systems in ways they were not intended to be used.

    Look at the US Senate Republicans – they’re taking advantage of the penalty-free conventions around filibuster and filibustering everything. Nobody thinks for a moment that this is how filibuster should be used, but it’s within the letter of the law, so there’s little that can be done.

    Look at Harper abusing prorogation. Heck, he’s even musing about making it standard procedure, which will further strangle Parliament’s power. Look at his abuse of ATI, his muzzling of government scientists, his refusal to reveal cost estimates for major legislation, his omnibus bills that make sweeping changes to damn near everything – and then look at how he limits Parliamentary debate to prevent Parliament from providing proper scrutiny.

    I don’t think the fix lies in changing our system of government, or in new laws seeking to curtail Harper’s abuses. Any system designed to prevent another Stephen Harper will be completely gridlocked in restrictive rules.

    Honestly, I don’t know what the fix is. Ideally, Canadians will be more educated, more engaged and more informed. A population like that would recognize a Stephen Harper and vote to limit his power. 20 years of trends in North America don’t leave me optimistic.

  4. It’s important to note that once power is taken from us by government, it is very difficult to get back, so even future progressive governments will continue to work from where they start. No politician wants to give up power, and we don’t want parties in control. You can call your MP until you’re blue in the face: it’s up to voters to fight this and show all the politicians that we expect them to uphold Parliament.

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