Peter H. Russell is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Principal of Senior College at the University of Toronto. He has published widely in the fields of constitutional, judicial, parliamentary and aboriginal politics.
A decade of Conservative rule in a predominantly left-of-centre society does not for a happy democracy make. Adding to the sourness of the decade’s politics has been the Harper Conservatives’ attack on parliamentary democracy. If Jeffrey Simpson could call Jean Chrétien’s Liberal regime a “friendly dictatorship”, then Harper’s rule might be characterized as a period of lean and mean corporate management.
Single party majority governments are always prone to stifling parliamentary deliberation. Fortunately, such governments are rare in the parliamentary world as most parliamentary democracies use some form of proportional representation, making it virtually impossible for any party to win a majority of seats in the elected chamber. But even compared with the few countries in which single party majority government is possible and with previous regimes of this kind in Canada, the Harper majority government, supported by less than 40% of the popular vote, has been excessively controlling and dismissive of the deliberative side of parliamentary democracy.
No other government in Canadian history, or in other Westminster countries, has used omnibus legislation, set time limits on debate or controlled committees as much as Harper’s majority government. The Prime Minister’s Office, staffed by unelected party loyalists and much larger than its counterpart in other parliamentary countries, has become the most powerful institution of government. Governing for this regime is primarily a matter of selling the Harper brand like a consumer product, using mass media tools of persuasion.
Parliamentary deliberation has been further stifled by the Harper government’s abandonment of evidence-based policy-making in favour of political control. For example, the government refused to provide parliament with information that would enable it to assess the costs and benefits of its get-tough-on-crime measures. Despite public outcry, it also proceeded to eliminate the mandatory long-form census that provided demographic data essential for intelligent policy-making in both the public and private sector. It has cut back on environmental assessments of new resouce projects, and it has muzzled government scientists by tightly controlling public access to their research.
With parliamentary deliberation all but eliminated, the main checks on the Harper government’s power have been the Supreme Court and the provinces. The government’s string of losses in the Supreme Court of Canada is particularly interesting because the decisions have been rendered by a bench on which justices chosen by Harper have come to form a majority. And this in a constitutional democracy with the fewest checks and balances in the process of selecting the judges of the country’s highest courts. The reversals suffered in these cases have most often dealt with the Harperites’ tough law-and-order agenda that has been based more on populist posturing than evidence-based policy.
Where the Supreme Court’s decisions have really cut into government power is in cases involving Aboriginal peoples. Decisions requiring that before initiating projects on lands subject to land claims governments must consult with the First Nation concerned involve procedural requirements and soft power. But the Court’s decision in 2014, recognizing the Tsihlqot’n people’s title to their land and holding that federal and provincial governments require the native title-holders’ consent for any resource project on their lands, deals with hard power, and significantly strengthens the legal resources of First Nations whose territories lie along proposed pipeline routes.
In managing the federation, Prime Minister Harper has jettisoned meetings with First Ministers. This classic instrument of “co-operative federalism” is much too collegial and discursive for his top-down corporate style. Sometimes, in fields like worker training where the interests and responsibilities of the two levels of government are inextricably intertwined, this produces a very fumbling approach to policy-making. Lack of provincial co-operation has even proved an obstacle to completing what might be the Harper era’s most significant economic accomplishment, a free-trade agreement with the European Union.
In the international arena, the behaviour and perception of Canada’s government has changed more sharply than any changes in domestic policy. In the Harper era, Canada has shed the Pearsonian image of an earnest, progressive middle power and become a hard-nosed ally of the United States and Israel. It was the first signatory country to walk away from the Kyoto Accord on climate change and it has refused to participate in other United Nations conventions on environmental conservation. An indication of Canada’s fallen international stature was Portugal’s selection over Canada for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. The Harper government’s serious under-funding of Canada’s armed forces has reduced the respect Canada can expect even from its closest allies.
So here we are, after a decade of Harper Conservatism, a grouchy people, increasingly alienated from our democratic foundations, subjected to populist, unintelligent policy-making, and increasingly unappreciated in the world.