Everyone agrees that Stephen Harper has been running the most centralized, partisan, and unaccountable government in Canadian history. The opposition obviously thinks so—that’s the motivation behind the slate of contempt-of-Parliament charges that threatened to bring down the government—unless, as looked likely at press time, unanimous opposition to Jim Flaherty’s Tuesday budget did so first. The press gallery pretty much agrees, since its members have spent the last five years complaining about Harper’s unprecedented lockdown on communications and access to information. But even the Conservative party’s own political messaging has portrayed the “Harper government” as a one-man show, a Stalinesque fetishization of the isolated leader working long and lonely into the night.
The only way any of this is going to change is if voters come to their senses and give him a majority in the House of Commons.
If that sounds odd, it is because the received wisdom for the past decade has been that minority rule is the answer to everything wrong with our democracy. It forces government to be more open and transparent with voters in order to survive. By requiring that it earn the support of at least one opposition party in order to stay in power, a minority delivers a more consensual style of governing, which enhances national unity and results in more progressive policies. As constitutional expert Peter Russell argued in Two Cheers for Minority Government, minorities empower Parliament at the cost of greater instability, but it’s a trade-off worth making.
The only trouble is, this minority Parliament has had the opposite effect. The policies and programs coming out of Ottawa for the past half-decade have been a drunkard’s walk of vote-buying, bed-feathering, and partisan hackwork, for which there has been no clear accountability. Parliament has become hysterically partisan and toxic, with everyone in a constant state of pre-election delirium.
It is worth keeping in mind that being called a tyrant is part of the job description for every prime minister who sticks around more than an year or two. The last one to do so was Jean Chrétien, who was piped out of office to the refrain that he was running a “friendly dictatorship.” The cover of Jeffrey Simpson’s book with that title, some will recall, featured a picture of da little guy from Shawinigan ginned up as Pinochet.
Everyone thought that bulletproof majorities were the problem. The solution, therefore, was minority government. There was even an apparent historical precedent to support this rosy view. Even though he never managed to win a majority government, Lester Pearson’s five years as prime minister between 1963 and 1968 saw the implementation of the Canada Pension Plan and the expansion of Old Age Security. Throw in the replacement of the Red Ensign with the Maple Leaf, and the Pearson years are justly seen as an especially fruitful and creative period for the federal government.
But if you go down the list of everything wrong with Ottawa these days, it is clear minority government is almost entirely to blame. 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. The “bipartisanship” that was held up as a virtue of minority rule is just another word for horse-trading, which explains why this government has no general principles, only short-term interests. As for every stupid policy, boneheaded tax cut, or wasteful spending plan the government has implemented, there is at least one other party that supported it. At election time, whom are voters to hold responsible? Minority rule is like joining the mob: it implicates everyone.
If the current minority situation seems exceptionally unstable, you can blame it on the proliferation of parties in the House of Commons. Previous periods of extended minority rule had one virtue at least: the government only needed to buy off one of two parties, both of which were at least committed to the continuing viability of the country as a functioning unit. The presence of the Bloc as the party of “profitable federalism” adds an especially cynical element to the balance of power in the Commons.
That is why the recent call for yet another political party—one that is centrist, principled, and freely accountable—is misguided. The problem isn’t with the Liberals, the Conservatives, or the NDP on their own. They are caught in a dysfunctional collective action problem, and adding another party, however well-intended, would only make the problem worse.
More constructive change could actually come from an election. Since becoming PM, Harper has faced the ongoing accusation that he has a hidden agenda whose most sinister bullet points will only be revealed once he has a majority. In fact, the discipline of clear and full accountability is liable to be a far more effective check on his power than anything the opposition has managed so far.
Majority leadership is guilty of all the things of which it is accused, allowing the prime minister to control the House and push through his party’s agenda unopposed. But as software programmers like to say, and as Canadian voters need to realize, these are not bugs. They are features.
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