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Lawrence Martin
Lawrence Martin

Lawrence Martin

Democracy Canadian-style: How do you like it so far? Add to ...

When you think about it, the way to make governing easy is to dispense as much as is possible with the demands of democracy. The d-word is a drag. It gets in the way of the exercise of power. Ways need be found to circumvent it.

There are a variety of such ways. One is to limit the voice of the bureaucracy, the public service, making it more submissive and partisan. Ditto the foreign service. As well, you want to dispense with agency or commission heads who don't follow your thinking. If some agencies get particularly meddlesome, such as Elections Canada, take them to court.

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There's an old-fashioned idea, once a Reform Party thing, that regular people - those grassroots folks - should have a sniff of the action. As nice as it sounds, don't go there. You need to amass unparalleled executive power so everything is top down and put through the filter of politics. For your own caucus, you enforce such tight discipline that no one dare cast an independent vote. You issue your members a secret handbook on how to disrupt parliamentary committees. For Question Period, you instruct your members to answer most queries with a putdown of the previous government's record.

A key facet of a downgrading democracy campaign has got to be cutting off access to information - so much so that you leave the Information Commissioner appalled, especially with the stonewalling at the Privy Council Office. Some sensitive documents are going to get out no matter how hard you try. So the strategy is to use national security as a cover to black out all potentially incriminating paragraphs. You may also wish to eliminate a huge government information registry (the Co-ordination of Access to Information Requests System) because the fewer the tracks, the better. You may also wish to prevent the publishing of departmental studies, especially ones that don't reflect well on your law-and-order proclivities.

It is said that a hallmark of democracy is the toleration of dissent. Best leave that one in the church pew. Exceptional measures need be used to crush the opposition. Stuff such as taking the unprecedented step of launching personal attack ads between election campaigns. Or trying to push through a measure that would effectively cut off financing to the opposition.

A heavy dose of demagoguery also can go a long way. Play on simple prejudices by accusing opponents of not supporting the troops or of being anti-Israel. If nothing's working, if the going gets really tough, don't hesitate to bring out the heavy timber. Just after Parliament has reopened, have it shut down.

If your campaign is waged effectively, you will enfeeble the checks and balances in the system and give the d-word a good clubbing, emerging very much in control.

That's effectively what's happened in Ottawa over the past four years. The Prime Minister is now in such command that he can get away with pretty much anything. And he is lauded for his conquests.

A test case of his powers is the re-emergence of the Afghan detainee controversy. The government is knee-deep in allegations of a cover-up, of obstruction of justice, of treating Parliament, as this newspaper said in an editorial, with contempt. The censoring of documents on the basis of national security - which also happened in the income trust controversy - is being met with great skepticism. The way the Military Police Complaints Commission has been blocked from probing the affair is unseemly. The treatment of diplomat Richard Colvin has spawned a letter of reproach from no fewer than 71 former ambassadors. William Johnson, a biographer of Stephen Harper, says flatly that "the government has subverted Canadian democracy."

If true, it likely won't matter. The key is that once you've established such a pronounced degree of control over the levers of power, you're in position to strong-arm your way past anything. And so the government has halted hearings on the detainee file by boycotting them. And so the government is threatening to prorogue Parliament again so it doesn't have to face more detainee music.

It's more evidence from a stockpile of how the system's been brought to heel. It's democracy Canadian-style.

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