Canada’s ‘democracy’

J.J. Mccullough

From a Canadian perspective, the most striking thing about the supposed anti-democratic political reforms approved by Turkish voters last week was their familiarity.

The majority of powers the Turkish president gained – the freedom to appoint cabinet ministers and senior judges without parliamentary approval, the power to unilaterally dismiss parliament, the power to decree certain sorts of laws without parliament at all – are all powers the Canadian prime minister already has. Yet no one would claim Canada is less than a full democracy, and it’s worth pondering why.

We can certainly question the Turkish government’s intentions. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has clear authoritarian tendencies and exists in a country with an authoritarian political culture. Turkey experienced multiple military coups throughout the past century – including an attempted one in July – and governments have routinely used state power and violence to trample the liberties of their critics.

Yet the Erdogan administration’s official justification for the referendum (and presumably the motive of the 51 percent of Turks who voted for it), that is, the need to make government more efficient and effective, is a common justification for the more authoritarian aspects of the Canadian political system as well. Any Canadian loudly worrying about the replacement of Turkish democracy “with what amounts to a dictatorship” – in the words of the Globe and Mail editorial board – should take a moment to consider how Canada’s political system would look if a third world tinpot proposed adopting it.

Canadian prime ministers come to power by winning control of the lower house of Parliament, an achievement which almost never requires winning a majority of the popular vote. PMs then appoint members of the upper house directly, which means it can be taken for granted that any legislation they propose will quickly sail into law. The ruling party is run as a rigid hierarchy, and the notion of a “free vote” in Parliament, where MPs can vote their conscience rather than the prime minister’s, are rare enough to require a distinctive term. Virtually every figure of importance in Ottawa, from cabinet members to judges to senior bureaucrats to committee chairs to military leaders to the head of the state broadcaster, are appointed by the prime minister with no oversight or veto by anyone.

Analysis of Canadian prime ministers revolves mostly around their competence in implementing an agenda, given there’s little question the office has all the power it needs. Right-wing critics of former Tory prime minister Stephen Harper, for instance, almost exclusively criticize the last four years of his administration – in which he held a solid majority of seats in Parliament – for its lack of ambition, and such criticisms stick because unlike, say, an American president, there are no formal political checks to blame. Harper faced no legislative chamber controlled by the opposition party, nor a rebellious Freedom Caucus within his own. The Canadian Supreme Court did repeatedly overturn a number of his legislative initiatives, but by the end of his term Harper had appointed seven of the court’s nine justices, so whose fault was that?

The realities of the Canadian system are controversial, but not universally so. Many Canadians occupying elite positions in the media or politics actually spend a fair amount of time defending the status quo or arguing for things to get even more regressive. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for instance, has been a long-time defender of an appointed Senate, and Michael Chong, a would-be leader of the Conservatives, successfully pushed for a new law allowing elected prime ministers to be deposed and replaced mid-term by their parliamentary caucus, similar to what is done in Australia.

The justification is always efficiency. The United States, with its feuds between the White House and Congress, and contentious Supreme Court nomination hearings, is often explicitly cited as an example to avoid, a system in which “nothing gets done” because there are too many competing poles of democratic authority. The central premise of the Canadian system, in which a prime minister is elected once every four years and given more or less free rein to do as he wishes, is considered basically correct, with talk of reform occurring mostly at the margins (i.e., who should prepare the list of Senate nominees for the prime minister to consider?).

It would be nice if Canadians – and progressive Canada-admirers abroad – could ditch the disingenuousness when judging the constitutional shenanigans of leaders such as Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin or Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. What’s feared is not a political system, but the particular ideologue running it. What’s feared is chauvinistic strongmen, not strongmen per se.

To a certain faction, after all, subjecting a leader such as Trudeau to the restraints of the U.S. Constitution – making his dreams of legalized marijuana, a perfectly gender-balanced cabinet, or a generous intake of Syrian refugees that much harder to implement – would be seen as no less a global tragedy than anything going on in Turkey.

McCullough, a political commentator and cartoonist from Vancouver, is a columnist at Loonie Politics. © 2017, The Washington Post

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