Some ministers and MPs become alarmed by the way a file has been handled by the Prime Minister and the staff who surround him. His behaviour is a betrayal of their party’s principles, they say – and it jeopardizes the party’s chances in the forthcoming election. One minister quits, then another. Everyone knows what happens next: The PM will face a leadership vote from his own MPs, and will quite possibly be replaced, midterm, by a new PM drawn from their ranks.
At least, that’s what happens next if you happen to live in Australia. There, MPs exercise their sovereignty with a much heavier hand than in other Westminster countries such as Canada. They are fully aware that in the U.K.-founded system we share it is MPs, not party members or the PM’s staff, who wield the power to choose their leader, and they use it to hold the PM to task. Since 2010, Australian prime ministers have faced a mid-mandate leadership contest (known as a “leadership spill”) on eight occasions. Four of them, including one last August, have produced a new prime minister.
As many Canadians learned this week, things work differently here. The Prime Minister and his staff are not just an important part of the government; for all intents and purposes, they are the government. Even the Clerk of the Privy Council, a theoretically impartial public servant, has turned out to be an intensely political power figure.
The fact that two Canadian ministers dissented publicly from a PMO decision, on what they saw as matters of principle, is a historic precedent here. In other parliamentary democracies, it would be a big story, but a routine one. British Prime Minister Theresa May has faced several such challenges already, one of them resulting in a full-scale leadership vote. So did many of her predecessors.
Canada is governed by the world’s most intense version of what the British, during the Tony Blair years, came to call “sofa government,” in which power rests in the PM’s inner circle. One imagines a not-too-comfy couch in the Wellington Street building once known as the Langevin Block where an MP might be gently but firmly warned away from a position.
In 2007, Eoin O’Malley, a scholar at Dublin City University, published a survey of the relative powers of Prime Ministers in parliamentary democracies around the world. On a scale of zero to 10, Iceland ranked the lowest, at 3.75 – that is, its MPs held the greatest share of power. And by far the highest score, of the 22 countries studied, was Canada: it registered a Prime Ministerial power score of 8.24.
That was before Stephen Harper’s Conservatives further consolidated power in the Prime Minister’s Office to what many felt was a ridiculously total degree. Justin Trudeau, after having pledged in 2015 to build a cabinet-centred government, has largely kept Mr. Harper’s heavily PMO-focused structure.
The question, now that we have been given an unwelcome tour of the sausage factory, is whether there is a better way. The disadvantages of PMO government are evident: It creates incentives for secret decisions that sometimes put the survival of the executive ahead of greater interests. Voters don’t know what’s going on.
Not all the alternatives are better. PMO-focused government is often contrasted with cabinet government, the usual exemplar being Lester B. Pearson’s minority governments of the 1960s. In 1999, scholar Donald Savoie’s Governing From the Centre: The Concentration of Power in Canadian Politics chronicled the dramatic shift from cabinet to PMO government – for example, the PMO’s staff rose from 200 to more than 1,000 over the course of 30 years.
But cabinet-centred government is inefficient and more open to corruption (the SNC-Lavalin scandal has involved political interference and possibly manipulation of justice, but no whiff of palm-greasing). It is also less democratic; when you vote, you are choosing your MP either on her personal merits or on the policies and pronouncements of her party leader – that is, it’s a vote for the future prime minister and staff, and not for whatever unknown and ever-changing entities form the cabinet.
It’s far better, and easier, to fix the PMO-focused system so it’s more accountable and transparent. We saw the beginnings of such change this week. The House of Commons committee system, while underpowered and neglected compared with other countries, serves, far more than the Senate, as Canada’s second chamber of democratic accountability, and should be further empowered that way.
In 2011, political scientists Lori Turnbull, Mark Jarvis and the late Peter Aucoin published Democratizing The Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government, which recommended a shift of influence and oversight back to MPs, and thus to greater democratic accountability.
One of their suggestions – fixed election dates, which make committees more effective – has become law. We should revisit the rest, including reducing the allowable size of cabinet and, crucially, making it easier for MPs to vote out their Prime Minister. Our governments would work far better if, as in other parliamentary democracies, the Prime Minister’s staff lived in constant fear of censure by MPs – the opposite of the current situation.