Journalists are anxiously telling people these days that Stephen Harper is the most powerful prime minister in Canadian history – and warning of dire consequences to our ancient freedoms. Among other things, they cite his centralization of power, his dominance of Parliament and his control of his own party. Opposition MPs predictably agree – some of them profanely. Are we witnessing a parliamentary coup? Or are we merely witnessing parliamentary competence? Should we be worried?
Not so much. As a simple matter of fact, all prime ministers possess the same powers as all other prime ministers – which is to say, all prime ministers are inherently powerful. “The powers of the prime minister,” Arthur Meighen once said, “are very great.” Indeed, he said, they make the prime minister “supreme.” This is so for a simple reason. By constitutional right and by parliamentary tradition, the prime minister is – for all practical purposes – the Crown.
It’s useful to recall that Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, sought to establish a Kingdom of Canada in which the prime minister would exercise sovereign power. “We cannot limit or define the powers of the Crown.” By this, he meant, through the transmogrification of the Crown, the powers of the prime minister. Indeed, Macdonald held that no legal limit could be placed on the executive branch, “the government.” The Sovereign “can do as she pleases,” he said – provided she takes her prime minister’s advice.
In his 1908 biography of Macdonald, Sir George Parkin observed that Sir John had fashioned a country with “a powerful central government and minor provincial legislatures for local purposes.” But, for Macdonald, this was not power enough. He further devised the provincial lieutenant-governors – all appointed by the Crown, all reporting to the Crown (and, hence, to the prime minister); all helping the central government keep the provinces in check. In the early years of Confederation, Macdonald frequently disallowed provincial legislation.
In any literal reading of the British North America Act, Sir George wrote, “Canada would appear to suffer under a dictatorship, the autocratic rule of one central figure, acting in the name of the Sovereign, who governs the Dominion with little reference to, or control by, the people.” In short, Canada is a monarchy, not a democracy.
In this monarchy, a prime minister exercises absolute control over the cabinet. Macdonald and Sir Wilfrid Laurier ruled their respective cabinets and backbench MPs with firm detachment. In historian Robert McGregor Dawson’s classic 1947 analysis, The Government of Canada, he observes: “The leader of the pack will tolerate no rival – and he possesses the will and the means to enforce his supremacy.” Margaret Thatcher famously ruled as the Iron Lady: “I don’t mind how much my ministers talk,” she said, “so long as they do what I say.”
Successful prime ministers, Dawson said, must be “ruthless” in wielding their authority. In 1902, for example, Joseph-Israël Tarte, a cabinet colleague of Laurier, publicly called for higher tariffs – breaking cabinet solidarity. Laurier fired him. His eloquent reason stands to this day: “It is in human nature to differ. It is in human nature, even for the best of friends. But the [cabinet]sits for the purpose of reconciling these differences. … The necessity for solidarity … is absolute.”
Many of the prime minister’s powers are nowhere written. These “prerogative powers” are simply traditional: the power to pardon; the power to declare war; the power to summon, prorogue or dissolve Parliament. It was silly for the opposition to go squirrelly when Mr. Harper prorogued Parliament for strategic purposes. His right to do so was absolute, his reason irrelevant.
Our constitutional monarchy is inherently hierarchical. It encourages consensus but does not require it – and gives us stable government in return. Democracy is for elections; governing is something else altogether. Yet, Mr. Harper holds his powers, elaborate as they are, only with the consent of his own colleagues. MPs are nobodies, Pierre Trudeau once said, when they’re 100 yards from Parliament Hill. Assembled in the House of Commons, though, they retain a superior power – in a parliamentary sense, the right to regicide.