Sunday, January 18, 2009

Popular Mandates and Getting the Worst of Both Worlds

Tom Flanagan, Stephen Harper's mentor and number one fan, continues to be outraged by the prospect of the House of Commons thwarting Harper's agenda and possibly replacing it his government with a coalition (an increasingly unlikely prospect given Mr. Ignatieff's silence on the matter). He recently wrote a column in the Glove (on January 9, 2009) suggesting that the mere prospect of a coalition is an affront to democracy and our constitution. In doing so he acknowledges and skates past the actual constitution that we have and ignores the actual history of Parliamentary democracy. In doing so though he advances a theory of Canadian democracy that will give us the worse of the American system combined with the worse of the British system.

In the United States the executive (the president) is elected or appointed by the elected president. It has its own political powers which it can exercise irrespective of the support of the Congress. It can thus claim a mandate directly from the people and (as was demonstrated by the outgoing administration) can act highly independently to form policy and shape the law. However, the converse is equally true, Congress is free of the executive and can make its own decisions and exercise its power in ways that limit the exercise of executive power without bringing down the government. There is no concept of a 'vote of no confidence' in the United States and issues have to be worked out by give and take between the two major political players (the President and Congress).

Under the British system, the executive theoretically has independent powers but cannot use those powers to achieve major policy goals without the support of Parliament, particularly the House of Commons. Thus at every stage the executive has to show that on any significant matters it has the support of the Commons and when it does not it either has to back down, resign or have an election called to have the public settle the matter. These options are all options which have played out in British history. Indeed, Winston Churchill came to power at the beginning of the Second World War by displacing a majority government that had been elected with a popular mandate through a revolt in the House of Commons. The story of Churchill coming to power is told in Lynne Olson's book "Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England" which illustrates beautifully how the Parliamentary system can force the executive to change in the face of crisis.

The opening of Olson's book is instructive though as it shows us a scene very reminiscent of what we saw last fall. Prime Minister Chamberlin, arrogant and stubborn because of his principles and electoral victory governed with a "my way or the highway" philosophy. When faced with opposition from some of his own members to a proposal to adjourn the House of Commons for the summer months, he declared the vote to be a matter of confidence and instructed the whips to make sure ever Conservative toed the line or suffer consequences. So too in Canada the give and take between Parliament and the executive has been stifled because Mr. Harper (as have other Prime Minister's before him)has treated every vote as a confidence vote. Thus on every matter the members have been faced with the prospect of forcing an election or a change of government if they decided to face down Mr. Harper.

This is how we end up with the worst of both worlds. We end up with a strong executive that is not elected and a Parliament that cannot act out of fear of bringing down that executive and forcing an unwanted election or an election they do not have the money to fight. The only way to cure this is either to move to a system of actually electing the executive (thus freeing Parliament to oppose the Executive from time to time) or to restore power to Parliament by recognizing that sometimes Parliament can cause governments to change without the necessity of a new election.

Professor Flanagan was born American and has lived in the one party state of Alberta throughout his career. He has a tin ear for the ins and outs of Parliamentary democracy which is best understood in this context. He is used to strong executives (from the United States and Alberta) and castrated legislatures (from Alberta) and cannot understand the sight of anything different. It is a pity though that this is who is teaching the next generation of young minds in Alberta. At least we can ignore him in the rest of Canada.


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