Who’s in Charge?
Canada is the most centralized democracy in the world, according to a study by the International Political Science Association. The study looked at Prime Ministerial power in 22 countries that use a parliamentary democracy and Canada is rated as number one in the world. First place.
What this means is that Canada is in fact an elected dictatorship. A fact acknowledged by numerous political scientists in Canada and something that the mainstream media does not report on. For obvious reasons. The study was conducted by Professor Eoin O’Malley and can be downloaded here.
Your MP as a “Nobody”
So, is your MP, as a duly elected government official, a fully engaged self-actualized Member of Parliament representing his voters – or a political “nobody” as former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once blithely said?
David Gamache Hutchison, Winner of the Alf Hales Research Award in November, 1999 posed just such a question in his report: “Executive Backbenchers or Political Nobodies? The Role of Parliamentary Secretaries in Canada” he wrote:
“According to many observers of Canadian politics, the power and spoils of public office begin and end with appointment to Cabinet. In what has evolved into a centralized, executive-centred Parliamentary system, policy making and legislation are, with few exceptions, in the hands of the Members of Parliament (MPs) within Cabinet. As a result, in the governing of the country, little is left to engage the remaining backbench MPs. Perhaps the most sought after consolation prize available to the government backbench is the position of Parliamentary Secretary.”
Executive-centred Parliamentary system? And who is the “executive?” Nothing to engage your MP? The power and spoils of public office? Consolation prize? Since when did Canadian politics become a question of the power and spoils of public office? Are these pirates we’re electing so that they can somehow divvy up the spoils of public office? Which begs the question – is there a pirate code? Who buries the treasure? Do they have parrots on their shoulders? I’m electing someone in the hopes that they can get to “the power and spoils of public office????” Seriously?
So not only is Canadian democracy some kind of a pirate cruise, your Member of Parliament – your so-called representative – is told how to vote. Often without understanding the financial implications of bills he or she is voting on. If the system is a pirate ship, your representative is some kind of deck hand swabbie.
So what do the pirate swabbies do? They vote how they’re told. As a matter of course. This is not even a secret. It’s called “Party Discipline” and documentaries have been made about it. Incidentally, the guy that made the documentary called your representative “trained seals.” And Pierre Trudeau also referred to them as “potted plants.” So there you have it.
Anyway, here we have a guy they’re throwing awards at arguing that our Canadian democracy is really a centralized, executive-centred Parliamentary system that is in the hands of the Cabinet. And it was there that I had another clue – within Cabinet. So, once again, it was back to the books to find out what this mysterious “Cabinet” is. First step – look in the Constitution to see if “Cabinet” could be found there. Or even a pirate code. Which drew a big blank.
Second, do a little more digging and come up with the fact that ‘cabinet’ is really the Privvy Council or former King’s Council and that they just call it ‘cabinet’ today!!! Nowhere in our Constitution is this committee mentioned and it really is just a ‘tradition’ of Parliament. So, here we have a tradition of government that has survived since the bloody birth of the Westminster Parliamentary System and it is still central to how Canada’s parliament is run.
So now I was realizing just how much Parliament hasn’t changed from when it was set up. Anyway, in doing the research, I came across this little tidbit from something called the McGrath Committee, which seemed to be concerned about reforming the House of Commons way back in 1985:
“The purpose of reform of the House of Commons is to restore to private members an effective legislative function, to give them a meaningful role in the formation of public policy and, in so doing, to restore the House of Commons to its rightful place in the Canadian political process.”
– Special Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons (the McGrath Committee)
Keep in mind this was written over 30 years ago. So if I’m reading this correctly, since the formation of the Canadian Parliamentary system, power has been consolidated into one small committee within government which enjoys the powers traditionally held by the King of England.
And when people speak of the “federal government” or “the government” in Canada, they are really referring to “the Cabinet” as this is the governing body of Canada. And “the Cabinet” is essentially a small committee within our government that exercises enormous power and, when combined with Party Discipline, marginalizes the House of Commons as long as the governing party enjoys a majority.
As well, the Cabinet is not elected by MPs, it is simply appointed by the Prime Minister, a power historically enjoyed by the Kings of England. In other words, the system hasn’t changed since the times of the King. My original suspicions were confirmed. And the House of Commons, the supposed representatives of the commoners (that would be you and me) is just a bunch of nobodies, as so eloquently noted by Monsieur Trudeau.
But wait, maybe Parliament has evolved, I thought. Just not in the direction most of us would like to see it go. It seems this consolidation of power has recently been taken to new extremes in Canada. I also found it interesting that the Constitution of Canada does not make any explicit reference to what has become the most powerful political institution in our country.
The Cabinet simply developed over time as part of the historical record of Britain and Canada. To the point that if the governing party enjoys a majority in the House of Commons, for all intents and purposes, the Cabinet becomes the de facto Government of Canada. The Cabinet is a creation of our political system but nowhere in Canada’s Constitution is it given the power it wields.
So how did this all-powerful committee come about? And how can a small committee within the government dominate the rest of Parliament? Back to the history books. When Canada’s federal government was formed in 1867 it simply borrowed the Westminster traditions based on unwritten customs and conventions that had been adopted over time. Not even a Magna Carta or two to guide the way.
The practice of cabinet government is one of these unwritten customs. So how did this committee develop? Well, as it turns out, even the King needs some help. This came in the form of the royal court or council. These councils would advise the monarch on public policy and oversee the day-to-day administration of the kingdom.
As the system progressed and became more formalized and as Britain moved towards its democratic system, it institutionalized these royal courts and called it the Privy Council. But, by the 16th-century the Privy Council had grown too large to be of practical use. So monarchs began the practice of relying on an even smaller committee of the Privy Council, which eventually became known as the Cabinet. Which has survived intact to this day.
In fact, the Canadian Cabinet is the direct descendant of this hugely influential and power-wielding body. Obviously, if you have the ear of the Monarch, or the Prime Minister (as the Monarch’s representative), you are indeed in a position of high influence. Do we have what we call a King today? Depends on what you think a name means.
But that debate aside, we have the King’s committee in place in Canada. In fact, according to former Prime Ministers and the Leaders of Parties, Cabinet runs the show and your MP is somebody’s pirate swabbie. So, in other words, Parliament hasn’t changed from the times of Privy Councils and Kings.
So, I wondered – where does politics enter into the equation? Because George Washington had some bad words about that – what the heck is that? As we have seen, Cabinet became one of the most influential bodies in British government. If you wanted to gain favor or even have your request considered by the Monarchy, you sought out members of this elite group.
If you were a member of the Privy Council, in order to have your views or requests known or acted upon, you would have to cut deals with the Cabinet or somehow influence them to deal with the issues you perceived as important. This is called politics. And it’s politics that Canadians, and incidentally, the world hates. More on this later.
Here’s how it works – you trade me some army support and I’ll appoint your nephew to head up that new colony. And, according to my research and experience in government, it is also how it works today. Only problem being: who is cutting deals for you and me? The Cabinet? Your MP?
The “Cabinet” Rules Canada
Fast forward to the modern Canadian democratic system. Canada simply adopted this system lock, stock and barrel. In fact, Canada was given its own Privy Council – The Queen’s Privy Council for Canada. The Canadian Cabinet became a committee of this body. The Canadian Cabinet and not the House of Commons effectively inherited the power to govern the day-to-day affairs of the Canadian government based on an unwritten set of protocols. Okay, you say, but the Cabinet has to listen to Parliament, right?
The Cabinet was theoretically made responsible to the influence of the democratically elected legislature in Canada (the House of Commons) but has it worked out like this? Not from what I’ve seen. Seriously – your MP is now complaining he doesn’t even understand the financial implications of bills being presented by Cabinet. He has been called a ‘nobody’ by a sitting Prime Minister. Does this sound like he’s much of anything? Like he has some influence? And, by extension, do you think that you do?
The Cabinet also has powers within the Canadian legislative processes. The Cabinet has the power to create and submit legislation to Parliament for approval by Canada’s two legislative chambers – the House of Commons and the Senate. The Cabinet also has considerable powers over the manner in which legislation is deliberated upon by these legislatures. The Cabinet, for example, can shorten or extend the time spent deliberating a piece of legislation at the various levels of the legislative process.
So what happened to the King? In fact, Cabinet inherited powers that were previously under the complete discretion of the Monarch. These include: the power to submit money bills to Parliament; the power to summon and dissolve Parliament; the power to grant pardons; the power to appoint key state officials, such as Senators and Judges and several powers regarding foreign relations, including those governing the signing of international treaties and agreements, and those pertaining to declarations of war!! And not only that but more recently, secret Ministerial directives have been used to wield this power.
Hmmm. So maybe this was the ‘foreign influence’ that George Washington was talking about. Talk to one guy and his buddies and they can commit Canada to foreign treaties. I wonder if that could be abused?
Now let’s follow the bouncing ball here – a Political Party fields candidates in an election. If the candidates win, they get to declare a Prime Minister (you don’t get to vote for him unless you happen to be in his riding), the Prime Minister picks a small bunch of his BFF’s and they figure out what they want to do. And if they think Canada should march off to war, well that’s the way it’s gotta be baby. So who, exactly are these politicians responsible to? Their party? You?
Ah Ha! You say, but Cabinet needs the House of Commons to act on all of this and your elected representative can effectively dictate whether or not this powerful Cabinet can get their wishes granted. Which is sort of the theoretical underpinnings of the democracy of Parliament, but, as even a cursory bit of research shows, it is not how the system works.
Obviously the most influence and real power within the Cabinet rests first with the Prime Minister, the effective replacement of the Monarch, then the Cabinet members themselves, then the members of the governing party and way further down the list the Opposition Members. The members of the governing political party that have been elected to Parliament may actually have more influence with Cabinet simply because they may have more of a chance to talk to someone in Cabinet.
The Prime Minister Rules Cabinet
But how do you get into this mysterious Cabinet that wields this power?? Well, the Prime Minister himself appoints Cabinet Ministers. So if you don’t toe the Prime Minister’s line or swab his decks, he can fire you at will. Wow. Does this sound anything like a “democratic” system to you? It certainly didn’t to me.
Keep in mind that each duly elected Member of Parliament is little more than a guaranteed vote for anything that Cabinet does. These Members of Parliament are referred to, appropriately enough, as “backbenchers“. Kinda says it all doesn’t it? And, really it provides the motivation to toe the line.
If you’re sitting around waiting to be called up to the big leagues in the form of a Cabinet position, what are you gonna do? Start complaining about things? Vote against your party? Or try to impress the head guy so he can give you a real job in government? Piss him off or kiss his ass, to put it in the vernacular. Bitch up or go it alone?
So if you think that Canada has 300 or so MP’s and in a majority government you’ve got over 150 MPs and each one of those is looking to be in Cabinet – your chances of getting to the real power is about one in four. Better suck up or toe the line or try to make an impression somehow. Otherwise just go cool your butt on the back bench and make sure you show up when your boss needs a vote.
Is this the state of the art of our modern Canadian democratic system or do all democracies operate like this? Wikipedia says: “In most parliamentary systems, backbenchers individually do not have much power to influence government policy. However, they are important in providing services to their constituents and in relaying the opinions of their constituents.”
So, even Wikipedia says your Member of Parliament is a swabbie. Really? This is what my elected representative is, kind of a glorified secretary? A gossip? How does he relay opinions I wondered? Maybe that was how I had some influence into the democratic system? If that is the case and the job of my elected representative is to relay my opinions to those in real power – when was the last time your MP asked you for your opinion with the express purpose of “relaying” these opinions to Cabinet? Is there a protocol for this? How is this duty handled in Canada? What formal processes are in place for this and why aren’t the results of this opinion-gathering publicized?
More importantly – can I see the recommendations? Surely not everyone who has ever been elected as a back-bencher just keeps track of all these opinions in their heads without writing it down somewhere? And what if my representative is in opposition? Does he get to relay my opinions to Cabinet? Come to think of it, every time I’ve ever emailed or phoned my MP I couldn’t even get a response. Or some “assistant” called or emailed and said he’d get back to me. Sadly, no one ever does despite my repeated attempts. WTF??? Maybe they do it with ESP. Or, maybe they just know what I need and work from that. No need to actually talk to me.
So what is the net result of power and influence in Canada’s democratic system? Is it sovereignty at the lowest levels or does it essentially consolidate power squarely into cabinet, which is dominated by the Prime Minister, who we have seen, has effectively replaced the King under the British system? And who does my Cabinet represent, the political parties that George tried to warn us about or maybe the mysterious ‘elites’?
If power has become so centralized that it essentially means our elected representatives are marginalized and the effective government of Canada is transferred to a small committee dominated by a Prime Minister, is that what democracy is? And, if I’m following all this and if my representative is someone’s bitch in Parliament and even he’s ignoring me, what, exactly, does that make me in the modern Canadian political landscape? A ‘serf’ or a ‘landowner’? My bitch’s bitch? Maybe that’s why the only time they even attempt to talk to me is when they need a vote. Anyway, it looks like the pirates are in control to me. And you and I aren’t even on the ship.