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article imageOp-Ed: Canadian prime minister takes advantage of constitutional flaws

By Mark J. Allan     Oct 4, 2015 in Politics
Opponents of Stephen Harper can thank the Canadian prime minister for one thing.
By consolidating power like no other Canadian PM within living memory, Harper has unintentionally highlighted a serious flaw in the country’s political structure.
As the leader of the governing party, a prime minister of Canada has enormous influence over his or her caucus.
Greatly amplifying a trend begun by Pierre Trudeau and expanded by fellow Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Stephen Harper has ruthlessly subdued any hint of dissent within his own party.
All MPs, from backbenchers to cabinet ministers, do exactly what he tells them to do or else.
Garth Turner, now a Liberal MP in Ontario, paid the price when he refused to conform and was expelled from the Conservative caucus in 2006.
The way it happened, amid unrelenting intimidation from unelected staffers and Harper himself, was chilling.
By obsessively centralizing control and enforcing his dictates, Harper has stripped his now-obedient minions of the ability to even remotely represent the interests of the voters back home who sent them to Ottawa to speak for issues in their ridings.
It gets worse.
Canadian prime ministers appoint people to serve in the Senate, supposedly a body of “sober second thought” that can reject legislation and return it to the House of Commons for further debate.
The authors of the Constitution Act of 1867 would be horrified to witness a Senate packed with people rewarded with a cushy job and generous benefits, not because they are qualified and/or willing to serve their country, but as a reward for faithfully serving the party that appointed them to the Senate.
After earlier promising to not appoint any senators, Harper achieved a majority with 59 Tory appointments.
Anyone who believes the Senate is the independent conscience of the House of Commons is woefully uninformed or willfully blind.
The recent Senate vote about the Conservatives’ anti-terrorism Bill C-51, which has been criticized for creating a security force without proper oversight, illuminates the difference in the relationship between Tory and Liberal leaders and their appointed senators.
A March 2013 memo to Stephen Harper from his chief of staff Nigel Wright is also revealing.
Wright and other senior staffers complained that Conservative-appointed senators were too independent. And, horrors, they had apparently recommended policies that were not pre-approved by the PMO.
How the Senate became dominated by Conservative appointments offers more insight into Harper’s obsession with control and what he will do to cling to power.
Although he defeated ineffectual Liberal leader Stéphane Dion in the October 2008 federal election, the Tories had only a minority government. Liberals, NDP and the Bloc Quebecois were building a coalition to oust Harper’s government.
With the compliance of Gov.-Gen. Michaëlle Jean (more about that in a moment), Harper managed to prorogue (temporarily suspend) Parliament.
That bought him time to appoint 18 senators three days before Dec. 25. Harper’s Christmas gift to himself, the largest one-time appointment since John A. MacDonald filled the original Senate in 1867, created a Tory majority.
That, in turn, prevented a Liberal majority in the Senate from approving the would-be coalition.
So Harper now controlled two-thirds of the triangle the constitution created to manage the country.
The constitution’s authors probably could not conceive of a time when the Crown back in London, England, would not wield considerable influence over decisions made in Ottawa.
In the 148 years since, the Governor-General has become a symbolic position. Although the British monarch’s representative in Ottawa theoretically can thwart a Canadian prime minister’s desires, Jean’s 2008 acquiescence is typical.
Unlike the Americans, whose aggressive, racially divided style of campaigning Harper so admires, Canada retained its ties to Britain. The Americans created a system of checks and balances between the president, House of Representatives and Senate to ensure they would never again be ruled by a monarch.
Unlike the U.S., where everyone from the president and judges and on down to sheriffs are elected, in Canada the PM appoints senators and Supreme Court judges.
This gives the prime minister an unhealthy amount of control, particularly when his unelected staff members within an all-powerful centralized PMO wield enormous influence over elected MPs.
No wonder disillusioned Canadians have been abandoning ballot boxes in increasing numbers.
Ironically, regular elections are the only reliable method to prevent PMs like Harper from doing pretty much anything they want to do gain power and ruthlessly cling to it.
Again unlike the American stipulation that no president can serve more than two consecutive terms, there is no restriction limiting the length of time a Canadian prime minister can hold the office.
Even elections might not be able to thwart Tory prime ministers because a 2003 merger between the Conservative and Canadian Alliance parties unified the right-of-centre vote. A three-way split between the Liberal, NDP and Green parties remains a serious obstacle to defeating a united right-wing opponent in the country’s first-past-the-post electoral system.
These are lessons Stephen Harper has taught Canadians. Are enough of them paying attention?
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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