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Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives a radio interview in his Langevin Block office on Monday, January 18, 2010. (FRED CHARTRAND)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives a radio interview in his Langevin Block office on Monday, January 18, 2010. (FRED CHARTRAND)

PMO has too much power, poll finds Add to ...

Stephen Harper says the Senate needs reform, but more Canadians think it's the Prime Minister's Office that has too much power.

With the Commons shut from December till March because Mr. Harper prorogued Parliament, a new poll shows 42 per cent of Canadians think the power of the PMO should be trimmed.

The survey, conducted by Nanos Research, finds Canadians retain the long-standing feeling that the Senate has more power than it deserves. But there's more concern about the Prime Minister's Office.

"It's not just the usual suspects," said pollster Nik Nanos. "There are more Canadians that think the office of the prime minister is one of the parts of our democracy that requires a second look."

The Nanos poll found that 42 per cent of Canadians think the Prime Minister's Office has too much power. Another 40 per cent say it's just right, and 9 per cent say it has too little power.

And if there's one institution that Canadians think needs more influence, it's the House of Commons. Only 13 per cent think the elected legislature has too much power, and 20 per cent say it had too little. But 55 per cent say it had the right amount.

Most Canadians pointed to the PMO as the institution that has too much power in Canada - more than the Senate (33 per cent said it had too much power), the federal cabinet (25 per cent), the civil service (24 per cent), the Supreme Court of Canada (18 per cent), and the Commons (13 per cent).

The fact that the poll was taken when Parliament was prorogued - a step that has focused grumbling at Mr. Harper - probably heightened the feeling that the PMO has too much power, Mr. Nanos said.



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The survey of 1,001 Canadians was conducted between Feb. 5 and Feb. 8. It has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points, 19 times in 20.

The feeling that the PMO has too much power and the Commons too little varies a little from region to region - and sometimes in line with voting patterns.

Only 33 per cent of respondents from the Prairies, which has a greater proportion of Conservative voters, think Mr. Harper's office has too much power - much less than the national average. And Quebeckers, who have elected a big contingent of Bloc Québécois MPs who can never hold power, are more likely to think the Commons has too little power or just enough.

The Conservatives' predecessor, the Reform Party, fostered a movement for democratic reform in the 1990s that was to expand the power of MPs, create an elected Senate and give grassroots voters more power.

The Conservative Party has dropped most of that agenda, but Mr. Harper has repeatedly called for an elected Senate - though he has concentrated power in his PMO. He holds a tight rein over what his cabinet ministers say and over their decisions. Even rank-and-file MPs are under heavy pressure to stick to the party line.

The poll shows there's a public desire for democratic reform, but that includes the centre of power, the PMO, Mr. Nanos said.

"If the Conservatives had their way, they'd be very narrowly focused on the Senate," he said. "But if you ask average Canadians, it's not just the Senate that requires recalibration."

The survey also shows Mr. Harper's government cannot count on public support when it contests the power of the Supreme Court. Only 18 per cent think the top justices have too much power.

Mr. Harper's government has also occasionally engaged in a power struggle with the Supreme Court - often viewing judges as too activist - and arguing, for example, that the government, not the courts, should decided whether Canada will ask the United States to release Canadian citizen Omar Khadr, who has been imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay for seven years.

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