AT THE CENTRE OF GOVERNMENT: THE PRIME MINISTER AND THE LIMITS ON POLITICAL POWER
McGill-Queen’s University Press, $34.95, 224 pages
U.S.-Canada relations are at a low point, due to the ongoing trade war which has engulfed our two nations. Nevertheless, we’ve been close friends, allies and trading partners for over a century in spite of our differences, both subtle and profound.
Here’s a significant difference that isn’t nearly as costly as a tariff. The U.S. uses a presidential system with a separate legislative and executive branch, whereas Canada utilizes parliamentary democracy based on the United Kingdom’s Westminster system. Canadian-style government includes a bicameral legislature, head of government (prime minister), civil service and Supreme Court.
What is it like to be in charge of Canada’s political epicenter? Ian Brodie lifts this veil in his book, “At the Centre of Government: The Prime Minister and the Limits on Political Power.” An associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary, he previously served as former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff and executive director of the Conservative Party of Canada. (Full disclosure: Mr. Brodie and I have known each other for years, and worked together in the Prime Minister’s Office.) Dipping his toes in two different waters enabled Mr. Brodie to write a constructive, thoughtful and intriguing analysis about the corridors of Canadian power.
His book opens with several provocative statements. “Canada’s prime minister is a dictator” he writes. “The Sun King of Canadian government. More powerful than the chief executive of any other democratic country.” Moreover, the prime minister “governs with the help of a few hand-picked advisors or courtiers, like Zeus aloft in the clouds sending lightning bolts from on high into government departments.”
Mr. Brodie obviously doesn’t subscribe to these descriptions. Yet, there are Canadians who believe there’s some truth to these fictional accounts of their head of government. “If the prime minister is a dictator,” the author writes, “that is the same as saying Canada no longer has a constitutional form of government. It means that our constitution has become a dead letter.”
The Canadian constitution is very much alive, however. While the prime minister obviously has power, it would be preposterous to suggest he has dictator-like influence over concepts like Parliament, caucus and cabinet. There are checks in the modern Canadian political process, and Mr. Brodie uses history and personal experience to prove it.
The history of cabinet, or responsible, government is examined. The author argues it was a “conscious choice” during the colonial period (when the young nation had an Upper Canada and Lower Canada) and in British North America. It was seen as a “raw democratic form of government sought by the Radicals and the Patriotes,” when social class, wealth and status were major topics of debate. Some academics question whether rights and freedoms were protected before constitutional amendments in 1960 and 1982, but Mr. Brodie describes this as a “mark of gross historical illiteracy.” If anything, the country’s early periods proved that Cabinet government “provided adequate, if fallible, protection of rights and freedoms.”
Meanwhile, Parliament has a reputation of “Canada’s much unloved institution” and some have even suggested it was dead due an increase of party discipline. Mr. Brodie sees things differently. He believes Parliament has been “enjoying a renaissance” during a seven-year period of successive Liberal (2004-2006) and Conservative (2006-2011) minority governments. In his view, “no one could take the verdict of the House of Commons for granted,” votes in the House “mattered,” and House confidence “was always in play.” There’s also been a push to reestablish the “power of the purse” and the legislative process in Parliament through an increased number of private members’ bills and more respect for spending authority, or “supply.”
Political parties are also discussed, which the author maintains is a “necessary part of responsible government.” It serves as an important reminder “politics is, by its very nature, a team sport. A leader without followers, as the saying goes, is just a person going for a walk.” The party “is a key source of power for its leader,” but it also “has to be able to hold the leader in line.” Hence, it’s fair to say political parties “are an important pillar of the Canadian regime along with responsible government, federalism and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
Indeed, governments make mistakes and politics can be frustrating in Western democracies like Canada. Nevertheless, Mr. Brodie’s book proves Canada supports responsible government, and believes in checks and balances to executive power. Much like our American neighbors, in fact, even if we’re not seeing eye-to-eye right now.
• Michael Taube is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.