Not your father’s minority government

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s minority government is not like his father’s. When Pierre Trudeau won minority government in 1972, he didn’t have the support of opposition parties. The government only lasted 1 year, 221 days. His minority government introduced the unpopular Petro-Canada Crown Corporation that reminded Albertans of the despised National Energy Program. Petro-Canada’s reddish-coloured headquarters in Calgary were tagged “red square.”

P.M. Lester Pearson. Image by Nobel Foundation, Associated Press

Given the bluster from the United Conservative Party of Alberta, you wouldn’t think that the Liberals have any support from the Conservatives until you consider that they both want the Trans Mountain pipeline built.

Consider the following, suggests my Calgary friend:

“I think the conservatives and liberals are not that far apart on the pipeline issue. If the liberals make good on our 4.5 Billion dollar investment in the TMP they will get no support from the NDP or the BLOC but the conservatives would be foolish not to support it.”

Wouldn’t that be something to behold? If the NDP or the Bloc Québécois opposed a pro-pipeline bill, how could the Conservatives not support it without appearing hypocritical? And the NDP and Bloc could then wash their hands of the project that offends environmentalists.

Justin Trudeau has consistently said that he is going to build the Trans Mountain pipeline. He repeated that goal after the October 21, 2109, election.

While reactions to the federal election have focused on a divided country, I see Justin Trudeau’s Liberals offering something for everyone.

The Liberals and the Bloc Québécois can work together on social policy and the environment. The Bloc Québécois has made it clear that they intend to support this Liberal minority government. BQ Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said that the Liberals should do “what it takes” to make Parliament work. He added there’s a law stating that government mandates are supposed to last four years. I’m not sure that’s true for minority governments but Blanchet’s support is clear.

Who knows, if successful, Trudeau’s minority government could be re-elected as was a minority government in 1965, one before Pierre Trudeau’s.

The NDP and the Liberals have the common goal of implementing Pharmacare. Both parties campaigned on bringing the much-needed plan into reality.

Canada is an anomaly among nations. We are the only industrialized country with a universal public health care system but no Pharmacare. Every study of Canada’s health care has identified the lack of Pharmacare as a major gap in our system. Medicare without drug coverage doesn’t even make sense. What good is a health care system that prescribes drugs but doesn’t cover them?

Justin Trudeau’s minority government should look to the accomplishments of minority governments before his father’s. Lester Pearson’s Liberals implemented universal health care with the cooperation of the NDP. And his minority government was so successful that it was re-elected as a minority government with back-to-back Liberal minority governments following elections in 1963 and 1965.

How fitting is it that this minority government complete the Medicare program started by minority governments, a goal not attempted by his father.

It’s too late to decriminalize pot

Decriminalization of marijuana should have happened decades ago. Now it would only add to the confusion.

Marijuana users are caught in a legal limbo. The government intends to legalize marijuana before Canada Day, 2018, but until then it’s illegal. Then, like a light being switched on, what was once a criminal offence will not be.

Alberta Legalization of Cannabis Committee

Government intentions aside, police are going about their business. They arrested activists Mark Emery (the “Prince of Pot”) and his wife Jodie as reported by CFJC Today.

The Liberals have been dithering over decriminalization for decades and this Trudeau is no different. Pierre Trudeau could have decriminalized marijuana in 1979. Then Justice Minister Marc Lalonde was playing politics when he said that he would decriminalize it before the upcoming election if opposition parties would just fast track the legislation. He was doubtful that they would. “I’m not optimistic,” Lalonde said (Calgary Herald, Feb. 22, 1979).

The opposition parties took Lalonde up on his challenge, agreeing to fast tracking.  Both opposition leaders Joe Clark and Ed Broadbent sent me letters of approval for decriminalization. They were responding to letters I sent on behalf of the Alberta Legalization of Cannabis Committee. I helped organize the group in 1977.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau wrote me to explain how his government was trying to decriminalize marijuana. His government had initiated a bill in the Senate, Bill S-19, in 1974.”The Commons, however, was unable to find the time to give the bill further attention; so it died on the order paper when the last session of Parliament ended (January 17, 1978),” Trudeau explained.

In my letter to the Calgary Herald, I complained about Lalonde’s tardy pace: “Why does the government seem so reluctant to do what all agree must be done? If Lalonde wants us to believe that this is a demonstration of his government in haste, then it’s time to see what a new government in action; a government that will not fiddle while Canadians get burned (April 14, 1979).”

Lalonde had teased Canadians long enough with his promises of decriminalization. His government was defeated by Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservative Party in June 11, 1979.

Executive Assistant to Clark’s Minister of Justice wrote me: “Mr. Clark’s government is currently reviewing this and other issues with a view to formulating policies and setting priorities.” “Be assured, Mr. Charbonneau, that your comments will be given serious consideration by the Government as it continues its study of this important matter (Aug. 3, 1979).” However, Clark’s government didn’t last long enough to decriminalize marijuana.

A Globe and Mail editorial argues that the government should decriminalize marijuana before legalizing it because users are in legal purgatory: “Besides, there is no viable interim regulatory regime that could accommodate a quasi-legal retail market. But there is when it comes to personal possession. It’s called decriminalization.”

It’s too late for decriminalization. More legislation would only add to confusion. There is a simple solution –what the Dutch call “gedogen.” Police simply don’t enforce marijuana laws. Unlike the Netherlands, where the law has been ignored for 30 years, police only have to turn a blind eye for another year.

Stephen Harper’s gift to Canada

It’s not what he intended but former Prime Minister Harper has emboldened Canada’s Supreme Court and strengthened the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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Harper set out to remake Canada in his own image; a conservative unlike any Canada has seen before. Certainly not like the Progressive Conservative party that his amalgamation consumed; one based the libertarian principles Harper learned from his American professors at the University of Calgary.

Harper considered the Charter, introduced in by Pierre Trudeau in 1982, to be an artifice. But to Harper’s chagrin, the legacy of his nemesis has been strengthened.

It’s not for lack of trying. Harper tried to subvert the Charter by passing contrary laws.  Looking to emulate the U.S. system of making political appointments, he tried to stack the Supreme Court to support his subversion. That backfired as the judges he had appointed struck down laws he had passed, such as those on mandatory jail terms or illegal drugs.

Another approach was to kill of the Charter by a thousand cuts. In changing the law incrementally, he imaged that lots of small increments would add up to big change. Sean Fine, justice reporter for the Globe and Mail explains:

“On murder, he took away the ‘faint-hope clause’ that allowed for parole after 15 years instead of 25. Then he permitted the 25-year waiting period for a parole hearing to be added up in cases of multiple murders – 25 years on each murder. And then he promised life in prison with no parole for especially brutal murders.”

Harper tried to shut down the safe-injection clinic in Vancouver, Insite, where drug users could inject heroin with a nurse present, The Supreme Court ruled that shutting the clinic would severely harm, perhaps kill, drug addicts.

The Supreme Court ruling had the unintended consequence of making it harder for the Harper government to limit the rights of the vulnerable. Undeterred, Harper pressed ahead with prostitution laws, which the court unanimously ruled against decreeing that the laws endangered prostitutes.

More consequences of this legacy played out when the city of Abbotsford attempted to keep homeless people from sleeping in parks by spreading chicken manure.

“B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson, a Harper appointee, ruled for the homeless and against the city. Government should not cause physical or psychological harm to a vulnerable population, he said, citing the Insite ruling.”

Ghosts of a strengthened Supreme Court and the Charter brought in by Pierre Trudeau will haunt the son. Rulings have reduced the ability of all governments to impinge on rights.

Solitary confinement in federal prisons is being challenged based on the Insite ruling. If Justin Trudeau’s new Minister of Justice, Ms. Wilson-Raybould, attempts to defend the status quo, she could find herself taking a position on basic Charter rights similar to that taken by the Harper government.

“The result could be a supreme irony: Unless she moves quickly – on refugee health cuts, on mandatory jail sentences that fall most heavily on aboriginal peoples, on a spate of laws that reduce judges’ discretion – the Trudeau government will find that its justice-department lawyers are in court defending Harper-era policies whose goal was to remove perceived liberal bias from the justice system.”

Canada’s bloodless coup

Canada’s current government has been altered to the extent that parliamentarians from a few decades ago would barely recognize it. While it’s not the sudden nonviolent revolution seen in other countries, the transformation is significant.

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It didn’t start with the Harper Government but it has become more entrenched under his rule. I don’t use the term “rule” lightly; there is no other way to describe the way Canada has changed from a parliamentary democracy to the reign of the prime minister.

It takes a keen observer to notice the glacial change. Robert Fulford, columnist and senior fellow at Massey College, was around when things were different. He writes about those years in Walrus magazine, Ministers of Nothing, How Pierre Trudeau killed the cabinet.

The way that government used to function is represented by the government of Lester B. Pearson in the 1960s. Pearson’s cabinet ministers actually controlled their portfolios and publicly expressed views from the left to the right end of the political spectrum. In light of today’s muzzled ministers, it looked unruly.

Ministers would regularly meet with reporters to lay bare the antagonisms within government. It would take a special person to herd the cats of cabinet but Pearson was that kind of prime minister. As a mediator in international disputes and winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, he understood the power of persuasion and compromise.

Fulford recalls interviewing Pearson in 1963. “These cabinet skirmishes involved anxiety and risk for the participants. But overall, the freewheeling system usually worked as Pearson intended.” Pearson honed his skills while serving as a minister under Prime Minster Louis St. Laurent. “St. Laurent, [Pearson] said, had acted very much like a ‘chairman of the board,’ giving his ministers enough freedom to bring their own experience and instincts to their portfolios.”

It’s a lesson that one of Pearson’s cabinet ministers, Pierre Trudeau, failed to learn. Like Prime Minister Harper, Trudeau saw the freedom of ministers as a barrier to control of government. “He saw no reason for ministers to establish their independence by leaking dissenting opinions to favoured journalists and constituents back home. Such freedom, which Pearson had put up with, didn’t strike Trudeau as democracy in action. It seemed more like chaos.”

As prime minister, Trudeau consolidated power over cabinet. In order to do so, he needed to form an agency to control government, and so the Prime Minister’s Office was created.

In hindsight, the subversion of government is astonishing. Canada was turned upside down. It used to be that elected members of parliament to carried our interests to government. Some of those would form cabinet and in turn would advise the prime minister.

Pierre Trudeau viewed MPs otherwise: “When they are 50 yards from Parliament Hill, they are no longer honourable members, they are just nobodies.”

Now the prime minster rules through an unelected agency, the PMO. This creeping coup happened because, unlike the U.S., there are no Canadian checks and balances to limit the power of our prime minster.

As I argued in an earlier column, the power of the PM exceeds that of the U.S. president. In short, the prime minister rules because he or she can.