The Prime Minister of Canada will be among the more than 100 world leaders in virtual attendance at U.S. President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy this week. It is reported he will treat the other leaders to a recitation of his government’s contributions to democracy, freedom and the rule of law in Canada: everything from “an enhanced emphasis on democracy in the digital space” to “reconciliation and anti-racism policies.”
The presumption is not only that Canada is a kind of democratic model for the world, but that the Prime Minister and the government he leads have been a force for its advancement. This requires, let us say, a certain degree of credulity.
This is the Prime Minister, after all, who won election in part on a promise of electoral reform, only to discard it when it proved inconvenient; who promised more free votes, yet whipped his caucus as strictly as any predecessor; who promised he would not bundle disparate pieces of legislation into mammoth omnibus bills or impose arbitrary time limits on debate, yet in government did both – sometimes limiting debate to pass omnibus bills.
This is the Prime Minister who has twice been found in violation of federal ethics laws; who improperly pressed the attorney-general of Canada to interfere in a criminal case on behalf of a firm with Liberal Party ties, SNC-Lavalin, then forced her and another minister out of the party for blowing the whistle on the affair; who prevented witnesses from testifying to what they knew of it, either to parliamentary committees or the RCMP.
This is the Prime Minister who ordered his MPs to stonewall two more parliamentary inquiries: one looking into the WE Charity scandal (where, again, his own conduct was central to the investigation), the other into the mysterious dismissal of two Chinese scientists from a top-security research laboratory in Winnipeg; who prorogued Parliament to cut short the first and dissolved it to put off the second, even going so far as to take the Speaker of the House to court rather than yield the documents Parliament had demanded.
This is the Prime Minister who tried, in his first government, to pass a package of changes to House rules (the infamous Motion 6) that would have effectively hamstrung Parliament; who attempted, in the pandemic’s panicky first weeks, to rush through a bill that would have allowed him to rule more or less by decree for two years; who, when this was rebuffed, failed to bring in a budget for more than two years; and who, even as he seeks authorization for billions more in public spending, has yet to table last year’s public accounts.
This is the Prime Minister on whose watch the Commons has sat for just 106 days a year on average – a fifth below the postwar average; who called a snap election, in defiance of the fixed-date provision of federal election law; who, after the election, waited a month to appoint a cabinet and two months to recall Parliament; whose ministers are on such a short leash that they are not even allowed to appoint their own chiefs of staff.
This is also the Prime Minister whose government has so failed to live up to its obligations under the federal Access to Information Act that it has been described by successive information commissioners as among the most secretive in our history.
In all, this is a Prime Minister who, in his attitude to Parliament and to parliamentary democracy, most closely resembles the prime minister he replaced, Stephen Harper. But Mr. Harper scowled and was mean to the press and was, let’s face it, a Conservative, where Justin Trudeau smiles and is kind to the press and is, let’s face it, a Liberal. Which may explain how he can lecture others on democracy, in the same way as he lectures others on sexual misconduct or racial insensitivity, without fear of ridicule.
Of course, the problems with Canadian democracy do not begin or end with this government, or this Prime Minister. In the powers our system reserves to the prime minister, particularly of appointment; in the relative weakness of Parliament versus the executive, and of MPs versus party leaders; and in the departures we allow from the fundamental principle of one person, one vote, whether because of the disparities in riding sizes or the distortions of first past the post – to say nothing of the continuing embarrassment, in the 21st century, of subjecting legislation to the approval of an appointed upper house – Canada has few lessons to teach the other democracies.
Not that that will stop us, or him.
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