What is at the root of the tawdry Senate scandal that is sucking the oxygen out of what is left of Parliament? It is not the illegal expense claims and ethical breaches, however reprehensible. Nor is it the tangled web of deception that is rapidly unraveling.
The root cause is the extraordinary concentration of power in the executive branch of the Government of Canada, namely, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The exercise of this executive power by the PMO is subject to none of the checks and balances essential to a vibrant democracy. Neither the House of Commons nor the hapless Senate provide any meaningful legislative oversight of the executive on any of the issues of the day,from healthcare regulations to investment deals to spying both at home and abroad.
This consolidation of executive power is not something that started with Mr. Harper; it began with a succession of Liberal majority governments, and intensified relentlessly with occasional respites during periods of minority government. But Mr. Harper has perfected it. Both before and since obtaining his majority in 2011, Mr. Harper has made a mockery of parliamentary democracy, using the PMO to micromanage public affairs and elevating the use of bullying tactics and the suppression of dissent to an unprecedented degree.
What do Canadians see in Ottawa? We see annual omnibus budget bills containing hundreds of pages and amending multiple pieces of legislation passed with little or no parliamentary oversight, huge numbers of communication and information officers who carefully massage the government’s message to reflect PMO dictates, and automaton MPs reciting malicious and untrue talking points off their iPads. Little wonder, then, that we turn away from, or ridicule our Parliament.
Yet this citizen disengagement simply accelerates the dangerous concentration of executive power. Our more fulfilling, targeted civil society activities may certainly enable us to stop the construction of a gas plant here or an oil pipeline there; but unless we take on the executive political class on its own partisan turf, we will win some battles but lose the war to save representative democracy. Since the real power and influence in every political party revolves around the Leader’s Office, whether in government or opposition, the more citizens disengage from partisan party politics, the easier it is for party leaders to accumulate and concentrate even more executive power. And the weaker the party base, the more unlikely it is that any leader elected to a majority government will voluntarily choose to give up such expansive executive powers.
What can be done to end debilitating, leader-centred politics and restore healthy checks and balances to our democratic system? How do we move beyond the worn-out bromides and clichés about making our vote count, more civility and less partisanship, more openness and transparency?
Here are the critical areas and specific suggestions for transformative change and restoration of public confidence in our democratic processes:
Use a parliamentary committee to consult Canadians on the range of options – forms of proportional representation or preferential balloting, mandatory voting, a lower voting age. Then implement the necessary legislation as expeditiously as possible.
Second, reform the Senate or abolish it.
Now that the Senate is so thoroughly discredited, it cannot remain in its current form. Use a parliamentary committee to explore the most acceptable options for a new elected body. Then submit two questions in a separate national referendum: yes or no to abolition of the current Senate, and yes or no to a credible option for a reformed senate.
Third, impose legal limits on executive power and the PMO, and restore power to Parliament and the people.
The Reform Act recently introduced by Conservative backbencher, Michael Chong, while undoubtedly spurring important debate over the relative power of party leaders and their caucuses, fails to address many other essential parliamentary and political reforms. These are comprehensively canvassed in the excellent 2011 publication Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government by Peter Aucoin, Mark D. Jarvis and Lori Turnbull.
Essential reform steps include the following: limits on the PM’s power to shut down Parliament by prorogation (requirement for a two-thirds majority vote in the House of Commons); new rules for the summoning (within 30 days of the date of an election) and dissolution of Parliament (fixed election dates – implemented but ignored to date by the Conservative government); transference of the power of the PM to appoint deputy ministers, associate deputy ministers, members of boards and commissions, and ambassadors, to an arms-length Public Appointments Commission, together with a fully-independent appointment process for judicial and quasi-judicial appointments, subject to a meaningful parliamentary confirmation process.
We also need limits on the PM’s power to appoint a seemingly infinite number of political staffers, and to manipulate and sidestep the vital work of parliamentary committees as the “primary forums for legislative review, administrative scrutiny and accountability.” This means limits on the PM’s power to appoint the chairs of committees and to undermine committee effectiveness by constantly changing government members and refusing adequate resources. Indeed, a significant increase in the staff (and budget) of the independent Library of Parliament is critical to support the revitalized legislative process.
Fourth, create a new administrative forum, a Council of Canadian Governments, to facilitate coordinated action required by all levels of government – federal, provincial, territorial, municipal and Aboriginal.
The Council would supplement both Canada’s optional First Ministers’ Conferences – which are currently held on the whim of the prime minister – and the provinces-only Council of the Federation, which seems to have become nothing but an institutional vehicle through which to complain about the federal government. Under the guidance of such a Council of Canadian Governments, all governments could collaborate openly, constructively and accountably to serve Canadians and pursue collective goals that no one level of government can achieve alone. These include: an end to the myriad barriers to productive economic activity across provincial borders, complete portability of certifications and credentials, robust infrastructure funding, and national environmental and health care standards.
Finally, undertake a comprehensive restructuring of our convoluted unaccountable system of federal-provincial fiscal transfers including equalization, together with an overhaul of our exemption-riddled tax system.
Unless Canadians are fully confident that our tax dollars are fairly and efficiently spent on strengthening the social and economic fundamentals of our nation, ensuring equal access to opportunities as well as comparable public services, no amount of constitutional, legislative or administrative changes will reverse the death spiral of democratic politics.
Clearly there is no quick fix to the current democratic deficit. But one fundamental point is clear. We must stop looking to “the leader” for every answer and demand more of ourselves. And we must get more involved in the partisan political party arena, and change the corrosive political culture that denigrates and discourages party-political activity.
That means supporting persons for riding nominations (our potential MPs) who have unimpeachable ethical standards, who believe that MPs should pay for their own meals, and who will collaborate across party lines to make reasonable compromises required in the national interest. It means campaigning for and electing more people of whatever political stripe who have the courage of their convictions – MPs who will go to Ottawa and demand real change, regardless of the party line. And, of course, it means backing party leaders who will encourage the independence of thought and action on the part of MPs that is so critical to restoring our representative democracy and real power to the people.