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Must everyone in the governing party fall at the feet of the Sun King? (GABRIEL BOUYS)
Must everyone in the governing party fall at the feet of the Sun King? (GABRIEL BOUYS)

Lawrence Martin

It's not just the Tories - we've spent decades digging our democratic deficit Add to ...

Here was Paul Martin speaking in 2002 about the erosion of Canadian democracy: "We have allowed power to become too centralized - too concentrated in the hands of a few and too remote from the influence of many. We have permitted a culture to arise that has been 30 years in the making."

In Ottawa, he lamented, power came down to one question - "Who do you know in the PMO?" The democratic deficit had to be attacked the same way the Liberals had attacked the huge fiscal deficit, he said. It was that serious.

Mr. Martin outlined several measures he planned to take if he became prime minister. They included an increased capacity for MPs to initiate legislation, increased independence for Commons standing committees, an independent appointments review structure to address the patronage plague.

The thoughts were noble but alas, the results were meagre. Most of his reforms weren't enacted.

Of the 30 years that Mr. Martin talked about in his lament, Liberals were in power for 20, Conservatives just 10. The expansion of prime ministerial power began under Pierre Trudeau before being expanded under Brian Mulroney and then Jean Chrétien.

So when Michael Ignatieff's Liberals start attacking the democratic deficit, they need be conscious of their own history. It is one area, at least, where Mr. Ignatieff can make use of all his time spent abroad. "Don't look at me," he can say. "I wasn't part of it."

But he has been here to observe what has happened under the Conservatives. They campaigned heavily against Liberal abuse of power and promised a new era of accountability. And the Accountability Act did, in fact, contain many fine reforms. But as Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch (who advised the Conservatives on the legislation) will tell you, a goodly number of the proposed reforms never made it to the table, and others that were enacted have since been violated in spirit. When Stephen Harper's all-controlling proclivities are factored in, the end result has been a further worsening of the problem.

People don't use the term "overconcentration of power" so much any more. It has been replaced by phrases akin to one-man rule. Everyone in the governing party falls at the feet of the Sun King. It's been four years since Mr. Harper came to power, and almost that long since anyone in his party has had the nerve to question his decisions. Maverick MP Garth Turner spoke out once and was banished from the party. The talented Michael Chong did the same and has been a backbencher since.

The democratic deficit increases for the simple reason that the government finds democracy too restraining. Power cannot be shared. Mouths need be closed. Loose charges sink barges. Most revealing was one of the government's defences for its latest suspension of Parliament. It's easier to get work done, Conservatives said, when Parliament isn't in session. How could anyone disagree? When there is no opposition across the aisle, autocracy takes the place of democracy.

Sensing that democratic reform is becoming a top-drawer issue, Mr. Ignatieff - his Liberals are back to work despite the shutdown - promised this week to give more power to federal watchdogs who have been under attack by the Conservatives for not being toadies. That's fine, but bearing in mind what happened to Mr. Martin's high-minded intentions, he needs to come up with much more. He needs a wide-ranging reform plan that will substantially diminish a prime minister's powers.

He could start with measures to reverse what began 30 years ago, measures that strip away the authority of the unelected in the PMO and turn those functions over to elected members. The enormity of prime ministerial might is such that a downsizing would still leave the office as one of the strongest among Western democracies.

An effective leader has to establish firm control, but that control need be complemented by a wealth, not a paucity, of the democratic spirit. It's about humility in power as opposed to arrogance in power. Canadians would welcome it with open arms.

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