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.
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.