Globe Editorial on Prorogation

23 01 2010

Today, anti-prorogation rallies were held all over Canada.

I liked aspects of today’s editorial in the Globe about prorogation, especially the references to the struggle to achieve Responsible Government in the 1840s.

“The age-old struggle for parliamentary rights against an arbitrary governor was settled long ago. In Canada; this was exemplified in the quest by Robert Baldwin and Sir Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine for responsible government. A basic requirement for responsible government in the parliamentary system, where the executive and legislative branches are partly fused, is for the executive to be answerable for its actions to an elected legislature. But a new struggle for parliamentary rights is under way, and this time it is the prime minister who is wielding potentially autocratic powers.”

As someone who spends some of my time trying to interest young adults in the history and principle of Responsible Government, I’m very glad the paper mentioned Baldwin and LaFontaine.The Globe, which itself played an important role in Canadian constitutional history, is helping to perpetuate the memory of these men. Thank you.

That being said, I was a bit disappointed by the timidity and conservatism of the Globe‘s proposed solution to the problem of the unchecked power of Canada’s recent Prime Ministers. The Globe editorial focuses on the codification of the unwritten rules governing prorogation.  This is an excessively modest proposal and one that overlooks some of the other options for constitutional renewal that should be on the table (e.g., Swiss-style direct democracy or proportional representation or more free votes in the House of Commons).

I agree that the codifying  our unwritten constitution would be a good first step towards making Canada more democratic, but we need to go beyond tinkering with parliamentary rules if are to democratize the federal government. It seems to me that ending the democratic deficit will require a profound cultural shift away from our elitist, undemocratic, and unduly centralized political system.  For many years, and indeed, decades, the federal government has been run by a tiny clique of bureaucrats (see Don Savoie’s book on this topic).  The result has been the imposition of policies that are anathema to the wishes of the vast majority of Canadians (e.g., such unpopular policies as the abolition of capital punishment and the participation of Canadian troops in the American-led war in Afghanistan). In some cases the policies rammed down the throats of Canadians are sometimes right-wing, in other cases they are causes dear to the left. What they have in common is that they are schemes hatched by small elites and opposed by the majority.  In a true democracy, such policies would never have been imposed. Alas, Canada’s government is controlled by a tiny group of elites in Ottawa– a handful of unelected judges,  corporate shills, continentalist generals,  and, of course, the powerful denizens of the PMO.

There are many reasons why Canada’s government is less democratic and less responsive to the will of the people than, say, the government of Switzerland, but I would say that the monarchy is a big factor. Other constitutions proclaim the sovereignty of the people (e.g., “We The People”). Although governments in republics frequently flout the wishes of the people, at least there is the idea that the government exists to implement the will of the populace. Monarchies traditionally operated on very different principle, namely, the notion that the ruler was sovereign. The job of the common people, the Third Estate, was to pay taxes, to act as cannon-fodder, and to shut up. Nobody took public opinion polls because the opinions of the peasantry didn’t matter than much. 

Louis XIV

Only gradually did the common people gain a say in their governance. Of course, today’s constitutional monarchies are democracies, but there symbolic and institutional vestiges in the background that legitimize undemocratic behaviour. For one thing, Canadian government officials (judges, MPs, army officers) still swear allegiance to a foreign ruler (the Queen) rather to the people of their country. I would argue that this weakens the link between public servants and the populace and undermines the notion that public officials are the delegates, the attorneys, of the people.

In constitutional monarchies, the rulers’ contempt for the common people is evident in many subtle but important ways. For instance, in the Republic of Ireland, there was recently a referendum on the new EU constitution Lisbon Treaty. In the constitutional monarchy of Great Britian, no such referendum has been held, a small elite of 658 individuals being held to be competent to judge this important issue.

No Side Poster, 2009 Irish Referendum Campaign

If Canadians are to democratize our political system, perhaps we should start by making a symbolic break with the past by abolishing the monarchy, declaring that the people are sovereign, and then creating an elected head of state.