All Hail General Krull! (Canadian Friendly Dictator Edition)

This post has nothing to do with copyright, but being a Canadian and a political scientist, I had to jot down my thoughts on Stephen Harper’s astonishing decision – and ability – to suspend Parliament for over two months.

Harper’s move to suspend Parliament on the flimsiest of excuses and for the second time in a year, as Andrew Coyne suggests, represents a worrying turning point in the history of Canadian democracy, but it’s one that’s been a long time coming. And while it’s tempting for partisans to frame this as the result of the authoritarian tendencies of a Conservative leader, it’s much bigger than that.

While Stephen Harper, who campaigned on a platform of greater accountability, should be held personally responsible for a government that has repeatedly mocked the concept, does anyone really think that the Liberal Jean Chrétien, who inspired Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson to coin the phrase “The Friendly Dictatorship,” would have acted any differently? The only difference between Chrétien and Harper is circumstance: Chrétien headed a majority government, and thus controlled Parliament completely. He didn’t have to resort to blunt, thuggish measures like the suspension of Parliament because Parliament did his bidding. Harper doesn’t have that luxury, so he, as our current “Friendly Dictator,” is forced to take the low road in pursuit of total control over the federal government.

In other words, the problem is not just in our leaders, but in a political system that concentrates all power in the hands of one person. In the end, there are only two constraints on the power of the Prime Minister: the need to win re-election occasionally, and the need to retain the confidence of Parliament. This second constraint, however, was weakened almost irreparably last year when Stephen Harper managed to convince Canadians that coalition governments are somehow illegitimate, even though in the Westminster system – the Canadian form of government – nothing could be further from the truth.

As a result, the only way for Parliament to exert any influence at all is to force an election. Of course, when one party has a majority, that’s a non-starter. Even when there’s a minority government (like now), election threats are completely ineffective when your other main party doesn’t have the guts to call an election. And that’s assuming that the Prime Minister doesn’t simply suspend Parliament again to avoid any non-confidence votes.

My greatest fear is that we may have already missed our best possible opportunity to reform Parliament. In 2005, when the New Democratic Party held the balance of power in Parliament, they made their support for Paul Martin’s Liberal government contingent on the inclusion of some spending measures, now long forgotten, in the budget. Why they did not push for electoral reform –from which they would have benefitted, as a smaller party – is beyond me.

Now, things are worse. Electoral reform is nowhere on the political agenda. A Prime Minister who doesn’t even control a majority of seats in the House of Commons has demonstrated the ability to suspend Parliament at will. Coalition governments have been deligitimized. Future Prime Ministers – Liberal and Conservative – will take these facts and run with them.

The dismissal of Parliament should be a non-partisan issue that enrages all Canadians, regardless of political stripe. Today it’s a Conservative in power, and conservatives may be inclined to give Harper the benefit of the doubt (although his decision to prorogue Parliament also managed to further delay many law-and-order bills of interest to conservatives), but eventually the tide will turn.

As for me, I would rather Canada not be subject to the whims of any one person, Liberal or Conservative. One of the great benefits of democracy is that the presence of vigorous and effective opposition tends to moderate extreme political viewpoints, of all persuasions, while allowing for the pursuit of policies that satisfy the most people.

There is a sort of wisdom in this moderation. It’s a wisdom based on debate and compromise, eminently democratic and Canadian values. Unfortunately, since the time of Trudeau, Canada has been moving away from these values and sliding further toward not even rule by one party, but by one person. If Stephen Harper is allowed to get away with his disrespect of Parliament, and if Canadians do not work to get rid of the conditions that have allowed things to get this bad, all Canadians, Conservatives as well as Liberals, will regret it in the end.

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1 Response to All Hail General Krull! (Canadian Friendly Dictator Edition)

  1. Sandy says:

    well said Blayne ..

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