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Canada's Prime Minister Wields Monstrous Power

Why are we scared to say it? Are we afraid of a truly democratic government?

By Rafe Mair 29 Oct 2012 |

Rafe Mair writes a column for The Tyee every second Monday. Read his previous columns here. He is also a founding contributor to The Common Sense Canadian.

This is directed at all teachers and all politicians. Our kids are not being told the truth when you teach about our system of government.

This is directed to all students and to all citizens. You, I'm afraid, have been, to put it charitably, taught a lot of horse buns about how we govern ourselves.

I once asked a teacher why the truth about our system is not taught and she replied, "We don't want to make them cynical." Just a tad ironic considering that what is not taught them is why they become cynical when they get old enough to vote.

Now what I'm going to say is not about technicalities or shades of meaning. I'm not going to nit-pick, but will show you that the very way Canadians govern themselves is a fraudulent charade and I challenge any educator or politician to debate with me.

What are we taught, and are we still teaching?

We operate under a system known as "responsible government," where the word "responsible" is not meant to describe the behaviour of politicians but has a very technical meaning, namely, that the government, which is to say the prime minister and his cabinet, are responsible to Parliament and can be removed by a majority of the House of Commons any time it wishes to vote no confidence in it, whereupon the government must resign and either a new government is formed which can win a vote of confidence, or an election is held.

(Throughout I will refer to the federal system, but what I say is equally applicable to provincial and territorial governments).

This is a marvelous system -- on paper -- and at the outset in practice as well, developed over many centuries in Britain. Indeed, until around the middle of the 19th century it was not uncommon for  a government to lose confidence and to resign, whereupon the sovereign would call on the Leader of the Opposition to form a new government and see if he would have the House's confidence.

This was, as we will see, before party discipline took hold of the system and strangled it.

Hamstrung since 1867

The system I've described didn't mean that governments were chucked out every other week -- but losses of confidence were not only possible but from time to time happened, followed usually by a new government formed by other MPs who could and often did win a vote of confidence.

We have had this system throughout Canada since 1867 and looking at all the governments since then, federal, provincial and territorial, there has only been one example of a government with a majority losing confidence and forced to resign. That happened in 1873 arising out of the "Pacific Scandal" when Sir John A. Macdonald with a very slim majority was forced out over charges of bribery involving the Canadian Pacific Railway. Moreover, this was at a time when party discipline was much looser than today. 

To give you an example of that, during the Charlottetown Debates of 1864, premiers took their opposition leaders along as delegates not because they were good sports but they knew that even with a majority they couldn't be sure of winning a vote.

You would think, wouldn't you, that with the hundreds of legislatures and many federal parliaments since 1873, given all the highly emotional issues they have faced, that one other prime minister or premier with a majority would have been tossed out. Not one! Zilch!

The reason is that because a prime minister needs to maintain a majority, strict party discipline has been enforced. 

How does the prime minister enforce this discipline?

If an MP votes against his government, he is chucked out of caucus, expelled by the party and denied the right to run under the party banner in the next election. This means that he must run as an independent, and while independents have occasionally held their seat -- we'll meet John Nunziata in a moment -- that is very rare.

The prime minister doesn't have to tell his MPs of this power.

On a day to day basis, the prime minister uses a judicious blend of the stick and the carrot. The carrots include appointment to cabinet, as parliamentary secretaries, as whip or deputy whip, as committee chairs and so on. The stick here, of course, is that the PM can unmake these jobs too.

The lure of promotion amongst backbenchers is very strong, for as Napoleon said, every foot soldier carries a marshal's baton in his knapsack. The backbencher sees himself constantly doing what he is told and will do anything to go into cabinet and join the big kids.

The most effective stick is the statutory right of the PM to withhold the right to run under the party banner.

The Nunziata effect

This is, perhaps, the moment to meet John Nunziata, a Liberal from Toronto. During the Mulroney governments he was part of a Liberal "rat pack" which made the government most uncomfortable, especially when they sustained attacks of the issue of the hated Goods and Services Tax (GST).

In the 1993 election, Nunziata, following the official Liberal platform, promised his constituents that he and the Liberals would abolish the GST. So did their leader, Jean Chretien. He and the Liberals were elected, in part on this pledge.

When the Liberals won and the minister of finance, Paul Martin, brought in their first budget, there, sticking out like a sore thumb, was the GST alive and well.

Nunziata warned the PM that they had both promised to tube the GST and that he, in all conscience, would have to vote against the budget, which he proceeded to do.

All hell broke loose. Nunziata was immediately turfed out of caucus and the Liberal party and was thus unable to run again as a Liberal. This last penalty is a very serious one indeed. In Nunziata's case, astonishingly, he actually won the next election as an independent -- a very rare case indeed. 
The Liberals weren't through with him, however. 

In order to stop the monster Clifford Robert Olson from having a chance to taunt his victims with the hearing he would have under the "faint hope" clause in the Criminal Code, Nunziata tabled a private member's bill to prevent this. It actually won the ballot it takes for a private member's bill to be heard and it was passed by the House of Commons. It then went to the Justice Committee whose job is to look at clause by clause meaning. Because it only had one actual clause, it should have been a slam dunk. Justice minister Allan Rock ordered the committee not to pass it and it wasn't.

Olson got his chance to taunt his victims and Rock then brought in virtually the same bill that Nunziata did and, of course, it passed.

Why didn't the Liberal government just let Nunziata's bill pass? 

Because it wasn't going to let Nunziata look good; thus Olson had his day taunting the families of his victims thanks to the need of the paramount dictate: Government must remind all MPs who's boss.

(It should be noted that the PM has the same sword of Damocles hanging over the head of cabinet ministers, who he can fire at will.)

PM's absolute power

It's important to know what all this means -- absolute mastery of Parliament by the prime minister with only a theoretical power left in the Commons to restrain him.

In fact, the Government of Canada is run by the prime minister's office on the advice of unelected advisers at his side.

The MP's only "power" is the right to speak up behind closed doors in caucus, and I leave it to you to guess how many backbenchers will make serious noises in opposition to the prime minister given the likely consequences.

Here is the biggest political crime of all.

The principal reason for a Parliament in the first place was to manage the public purse. The budget is far and away the most important function of the political year, yet backbench MPs very much including government MPs have no say whatsoever in the process! Neither, for that matter, do cabinet members.

The budget is essentially the PM's demand for money and Parliament only gets to see it first when it's tabled in the House!

Some years ago, the B.C. Ex-MLA's Society asked me to assist them to bring to high schools the way Parliament was run. I asked what it was they were going say.

I was told that they would be taught how a bill was tabled in the House, the number of MLAs who could speak on it and for how long -- in other words the technical aspects of how the House runs.

I asked if they would tell the truth as I have above and I was advised that my assistance wouldn't be necessary after all.

I resigned after saying what a pity it is that they, having all that experience, would not tell youngsters the truth.

If young people aren't told the truth, who will ever fight to bring Parliament and its members back to the people?

My next column, two weeks from now, will propose solutions to the undemocratic power imbalance I've outlined here. And in so doing, offer a politics curriculum different from the educational fraud we are perpetrating upon our young.  [Tyee]

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