Well, so much for another attempt at curbing the über-powers of our Prime Minister. The highly publicized reform proposals of Tory backbencher Michael Chong aren’t wanted, judging by the words of Stephen Harper and his team.
They will likely meet the fate of others before them. Our “elected dictatorship,” as Green Party leader Elizabeth May and others have called it, gets another reprieve. It is safely ensconced.
We can’t say we weren’t forewarned. We can go all the way back to the mid-1970s. On Dec. 9, 1974, we find Tory MP Joe Clark putting forward a motion in the Commons aimed at having safeguards set in place to secure the sovereignty of Parliament as intended by the Constitution.
Backbencher Clark – he hadn’t even reached the “Joe Who” stage of his career yet – was becoming uneasy over how that sovereignty was being challenged by Pierre Trudeau’s office. Mr. Trudeau’s government “might have got out of the bedrooms of the nation,” asserted Mr. Clark, “but it has more than made up for that everywhere else.”
The young MP had watched throughout the 1960s as rules of Parliament were significantly changed. A guillotine rule had been passed to limit debate. Limits were also put on the number of Opposition days. Debates were diverted from the Commons floor to committees.
In tandem, Mr. Clark noted, Mr. Trudeau had “in effect, established for the first time a new ‘Department of the Prime Minister’ in the Privy Council Office and the Office of the Prime Minister.” This office, he continued, was “created in the absence of authority from, or discussion in, Parliament. It operates beyond our scrutiny and, having the ear of the prime minister, it has the capacity virtually to change any direction or challenge any initiative that arises either in Parliament or in the public service.”
The new department, he said, was overpowering the cabinet, the public service and other checks and balances in the system. While the Constitution stipulated that the executive branch need submit to the will of the legislative branch, the Canadian system was devolving to something akin to the opposite – collective obedience to the will of the man at the apex of power.
On the controversial measure, the so-called guillotine rule, Mr. Trudeau invoked closure in 1969 to impose it. This was the moment when he uttered the infamous words about MPs being “just nobodies” when “they are 50 yards from Parliament Hill.”
Political scientist Denis Smith wrote at the time that “this was as clear an indication as there has ever been that the Canadian prime minister is inclined to think of himself as a crypto-president, responsible directly to the people and not to the House of Commons.”
The system was diffuse before Mr. Trudeau came to power, said Mr. Smith, but he gave the federal bureaucracy centralized political leadership, he expanded his office into a presidential-styled one, he altered the procedures of the House and he went directly to the people.
Four decades on, and the trends as noted by Mr. Smith and Mr. Clark (who came to power but dropped the ball) have only accelerated. The PMO gets more presidential all the time, but Parliament lacks the power of the House or Senate in Washington to check it.
Mr. Harper likes a presidential-styled operation and going directly to the people as well. The latest tactic from his communications team is what some are calling PMO TV. Funded by you, the taxpayer, and debuting on government websites, it’s a weekly video roundup of prime ministerial activities called “24 Seven.” Set to an imperious musical score, the PM is seen in Vancouver, minus the protesters, discussing the economy, children with happy grins surround him for a concluding clip.
Remarkable is the fact that while prime ministers have accumulated so much power, they have with rare exception refused calls, for the good of democracy and their reputations, to draw that power down.
Way back in the day, Mr. Clark was on to something. No one listened.