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.

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The PMO and the government of Canada

Immigrants are not getting a whole story of the way our government works. They are given a study booklet called Discover Canada, the Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship in preparation for becoming citizens.

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The booklet describes the traditional branches of government but fails to mention one of the most powerful agencies of government, the Prime Minister’s Office. It’s not even mentioned in our statutes or constitution. The rise in power of the PMO can rightfully be labeled a coup.

For your enlightenment, future citizens of Canada, here’s what the government’s booklet is not telling you.

The Prime Minister’s Office is not a spot where the prime minister has an office. Rather it is a powerful agency staffed by approximately 100 people from the prime minister’s party. They are loyal to the prime minister alone, certainly not to elected members of parliament and not even to minsters of state.

The PMO does the bidding of the prime minster, to shape the PM’s public image and to tell ministers of government what to say and do. This is the opposite to what you are told in the booklet which suggests that ministers of government advise the prime minister on important matters.

Like members of the senate, members of the PMO are not elected. Unlike members of the senate, they do not represent regions of Canada, do not necessarily have any experience in business or politics, and are not even a mix of appointees from past and present governments.

Their lack of experience can lead to tensions. Such tensions came to light during the investigation of a senator accused of taking a bribe. Loosened from the bonds of loyalty, Senator Mike Duffy told the Senate:

“Today, you have an opportunity to stand strong and use your power to restrain the unaccountable power of the PMO. That’s what this Senate’s about, sober second thought, not taking dictation from kids in short pants down the hall.”

You will rarely hear such candid remarks from members of the government because, you see, the prime minister will fire them if they get out of line. It’s the kind of fear you would expect from an employer/employee relationship but it’s no way to run a government. The prime minister should take direction from his party and parliamentarians.

The PMO has become so powerful that it can act without even the knowledge and approval of the prime minister. The extent of this power was revealed through the release of emails in the investigation of alleged bribery by Senator Duffy. It turns out that many members of the PMO knew about the payoff to the senator but not the prime minister. Even the prime minister’s close friend and chief of staff knew and never told the PM.

This is only one case that we know of where the PMO acted independently of the prime minister. It’s a dangerous subversion of parliamentary democracy. There may be others.

The growing power of the PMO illustrates how unelected agencies can wield power and run out of control of their supposed masters.

Strive to restore democracy to Canada, future citizens! Restore integrity to our democratic institutions.