Skip to main content

Photo Illustration: The Globe and Mail. Source Images: Houses of Parliament, 1868/Library and Archives Canada; Broken Mirror/iStock

Donald Savoie is the Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the Université de Moncton and the author of the new book Democracy in Canada: The Disintegration of Our Institutions, from which this essay has been partly adapted.

Canadians can be proud of how their national political and administrative institutions operate, at least when compared with those of other countries. Canadian representative democracy, however, is not without problems. A 2017 survey by Samara Canada reveals Canadians have little trust in their members of Parliament, that politics repels more Canadians than it attracts and that the legitimacy of our representative democracy is at risk.

Canadians also increasingly believe that they have little control over government and, worse, that even their politicians have little control over events as they take shape. If Canadians wish to locate political power, they should not look to the Parliament, political parties, Cabinet or the public service. The health of our democracy is tied at the hip to the health of our institutions, and all institutions that underpin Canadian democracy are in need of repair.

We can start with Parliament, the one legitimate institution in which all communities in Canada can be heard through their MPs. It has lost its ability to hold government to account. It is no longer able to contribute to meaningful policy debates and it has precious little to offer on the important challenges confronting our country. You need not take my word for it. Several books and reports prepared in recent years by current and former members of Parliament document the decline of Parliament and all offer a call for action that has been and continues to be ignored.

To be sure, there have been promises of transformative change from those who have the power to introduce it and make it stick. Paul Martin, Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau all made firm commitments before they became prime minister to change Parliament and its culture, to make it more relevant to Canadians and to empower elected MPs. It will be recalled that Justin Trudeau firmly committed that 2015 would be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.

They soon discovered, once in power, that it was in their political interest to stick with the status quo, and they all did. Mr. Trudeau, for example, very quickly had a change of mind about electoral reform after he came to office. Why, he may well have asked, make it more difficult to win a majority mandate in the next election?

It is no exaggeration to write that governments, no matter which party holds power, now view Parliament as an obstacle to be overcome. It has become an institution whose role is largely limited to legitimating decisions struck elsewhere. How else can one explain the use, by all governments in recent years, of omnibus bills? Party leaders see all kinds of flaws in omnibus bills while in opposition, claiming they undermine the ability of Parliament to do its job, but have a change of heart as soon as they become PM.

I know of no one who is prepared to make the case that Parliament is able to hold the government to account on budget matters, or that MPs play a meaningful role in reviewing the government’s spending plans. This is one of Parliament’s most important responsibilities. However, I know many credible voices who argue the contrary. Sheila Fraser, who served as Canada’s auditor-general, argued before she stepped down that MPs are “failing Canadians on one of their most fundamental roles, the scrutiny of yearly spending estimates," according to an editorial that ran in the Hill Times in 2011.

MPs and aspiring MPs do come in handy at election time. But their role is to sing from the hymnbook written by party leaders and their courtiers. MPs and aspiring MPs, meanwhile, are to do as they are told and avoid creating problems for their leader. It is widely accepted that political parties are running on empty in shaping policy prescriptions. The result is that all political parties now reflect their leaders rather than having leaders reflect their parties. It explains why political parties are bleeding loyal members and have been turned into little more than election day and fundraising organizations. In short, party leaders, their pollsters and political consultants now run election campaigns. They insist that the best way to win an election is to run five different campaigns – one in Atlantic Canada, one in Quebec, one in Ontario, one in the Prairies and one in British Columbia. But as soon as the election is won, the national policy mindset returns in Ottawa so that all initiatives have to fit in nationally prescribed policy and requirements.

Things do not improve for MPs once elected. Dennis Mills, a former MP and businessperson who regularly meets with chief executives, summed things up well: “CEOs no longer know who their MPs are, but they sure know who their lobbyists are," he told me the other week. It only takes a moment’s reflection to appreciate that Canadians cannot afford lobbyists to roam the corridors of power in Ottawa on their behalf. Therein lies the problem. Their MPs are not allowed in to be an effective advocate for the communities they represent or hold the government to account.

Cabinet ministers have also lost standing – both collectively and as individuals. It was a senior minister in the Chrétien cabinet who once argued that cabinet is not a decision-making body, it is a focus group for the prime minister. I invite those who believe that Canada still has cabinet government to ponder this: Two key decisions regarding Canada’s deployment in Afghanistan – one by a Liberal government, one by a Conservative government – were made in the PMO with the help of a handful of political advisers and civilian and military officials. The relevant ministers – of National Defence and Foreign Affairs – were not even in the room, according to Janice Stein and Eugene Lang’s 2007 book, The Unexpected War.

It will be recalled that Mr. Trudeau pledged in the 2015 campaign to turn around what Trudeau père had started and lessen the PMO’s grip on the government policy and decision-making processes. All evidence, however, points to the contrary.

Mr. Trudeau did what no other prime minister ever tried to do. He did away with regional ministers, further attenuating the voice of the regions in Ottawa. He did this ostensibly because he could not make the concept work in Ontario, or Quebec. These two provinces do not need regional ministers – more than half of its cabinet is from these two provinces including the prime minister and minister of finance, Bill Morneau. Throughout history, we had powerful regional voices in the federal government decision-making process – as examples, think of Don Mazankowski from Alberta, Don Jamieson and John Crosbie from Newfoundland and Labrador, and Allan J. MacEachen from Nova Scotia. Today, there are no such powerful voices being heard to speak to the interest of Western or Atlantic Canada.

The public service has also lost standing in recent years. Bureaucracy bashing has taken a toll and so has the arrival of permanent election campaigns constantly fuelling the blame game. We have added one new officer of Parliament after another, all looking over the shoulders of public servants. This has made the public service more cautious than ever. As one former senior deputy minister said to me, “If the public service was now asked to ice a hockey team, it would ice six goalies.”

The federal public service has also become much more Ottawa-centric than at any time in the past. Today, more than 40 percent of federal public servants work in Ottawa. Forty years ago, it was 27 percent. The argument is that Ottawa needs more and more staff to feed material to the Prime Minister’s Office and other central agencies and to manage the blame game that plays out on the news channels and social media. The result is that the delivery of government services, handled mostly by regional offices, is suffering. Almost the entirety of the senior federal public service is also located in Ottawa, fuelling further regional alienation.

The media, another key institution to making representative democracy work, are also facing challenges. The traditional media, with their full gamut of fact checking and editorial oversight, are fast giving way to the Wild West ways of social media. The digital world is making it possible for the post-truth world to flourish. All supporting evidence one now needs on social media is: “I heard it somewhere.” The result is that social media disconnects Canadians as much as it connects them. If news you read on Facebook makes your blood boil, you may not have much energy or interest left to make a difference, to do volunteer work, to join a political party, or even to vote.

The courts are fast elbowing their way in on both the policy- and decision-making processes. The Supreme Court has carved out a role for itself that would have been unthinkable some forty years ago. Canada’s former chief justice Beverley McLachlin once said that “Canadians can now go to court to challenge laws and government acts not only on the grounds that they exceeded the grants of power, but also on the ground that they violate fundamental rights.” The courts can now even tell governments how quickly they should implement a program. And yet, Canadians also feel alienated from their courts. Leave it to Justice McLachlin to explain why: “We have wonderful justice for corporations and for the wealthy. But the middle class and the poor may not be able to access our justice system,” she told the Western Ontario Faculty of Law in a speech in 2002. “How can there be public confidence in a system of justice that shuts people out; that does not give them access?”

All of the above should make aspiring MPs ponder – why make the effort to get elected? They have become mere pawns who are told what to do before and even after being elected. They have to deal with an unrelenting social media and 24-hour news cycle that never allows yesterday’s news to remain yesterday’s news. If you ever made an inappropriate comment when you were a teenager – and who hasn’t – it will surely come back to bite. If you make it to cabinet, you will play the part of a cabinet minister – but decisions that matter to you or your region are taken elsewhere. The courts have redefined your role so that the notion that Parliament is supreme in our Westminster-inspired parliamentary system now belongs to the history books and not recent history at that.

The public service is trying as best it can to cope under trying circumstances. Senior officials are overworked trying to manage the blame game for ministers and their departments and to pursue the government’s policy agenda. Lower level public servants, meanwhile, do not have the responsibilities or the kind of work that correspond to their skills and expectations. They are all too often kept busy turning cranks not attached to anything. This, too, is a very dangerous road to follow.

Canadian representative democracy needs to be on guard against mediocrity, complacency, poor journalism, low regard for politicians, a debased public service, a sense that citizens have no control over their government and that this country’s national political institutions are unable to reflect Canadian society and its regions. People instinctively sense a problem with the state of Canadian democracy.

What is needed is a prime minister who is as firmly committed to fixing our political institutions as former prime minister Pierre E. Trudeau was in patriating Canada’s Constitution. Nothing else will work, as history so clearly shows.

Canadians can influence political will – and now is the time. If citizens ever have a say, it is during an election. I encourage Canadians to press candidates when they come knocking on their doors to see what they are prepared to do to make Parliament more relevant, to reduce some of the powers prime ministers and their advisers have and to deal with growing regional alienation – particularly in Western Canada but also in the Atlantic region. Quebec is no longer the only threat to national unity.

I expect little of social media, but the traditional media have an important role to play. I can appreciate that the political horse race, political missteps and policy issues all hold appeal for them and their viewers and readers. But they also need to focus on the health of our national institutions, our only institutions that can actually make Canada work better. The media should push all party leaders to come up with answers in the debates and in interviews. Party leaders are at the front line trying to make our institutions work better for Canadians and they need to provide answers. There is no shortage of possible answers – make a firm commitment to avoid omnibus bills, make it easier for MPs to understand the government’s budget process, allow more free votes, tell Senators that they need to give voice to regional considerations in revising legislation, reduce staff numbers in central agencies, and shift resources to offices that deliver services and only make commitments that you are prepared to honour.

If we are going to reverse the disintegration of our political institutions, we have little time to lose. On October 21, Canada will elect a new Parliament. Both Canadians and the media need to push those who offer to serve, particularly party leaders, to say how they propose to breathe new life into our national political and administrative institutions.