politics

We Have Problems With that Washington Post Story About Canadian Democracy

As a bitter graduate student, my credit rating did not die for this bullshit.

Drew Brown

Drew Brown

Canadian cartoonist JJ McCullough with a politics byline in the Washington Post is a lot like a mule with a spinning wheel. No one knows how he got it, and danged if he knows how to use it.

I'm sorry. That's mean. I am a gentleman and a scholar, and I did not go tens of thousands of dollars into debt pursuing a mostly useless doctorate in political science just to be rude to strangers on the internet. Ruthlessly dunking on people is not the Canadian way. So let us instead coolly consider the merits of McCullough's arguments about the deficiencies in Canadian democracy and assess whether or not he is correct to equivocate the government of Justin Trudeau with that of Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Tayyip Erdogan Image Source. Wikimedia

We should at least give the devil his due. McCullough is right—and far from alone among political scientists, professional pundits, or other media apparatchiks—in observing that there is a democratic deficit in the Canadian parliament. But he is wrong in identifying its sources, and he blows his complaints far out of proportion when comparing the authority of a prime minister in a Westminster parliamentary system with that of a president in a different political system who has revised or abrogated constitutional checks and balances (with legitimate popular support or otherwise).

Let's take a look at his specific complaints about the Canadian system of government.

McCullough begins airing his grievances about the government by declaring that "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." This is true, although it's worth noting that we do not directly elect our prime ministers at all. Instead, in keeping with the basic principle of representative government, we elect individual MPs to represent the interests of our given geographic region and deliberate with one another about the national interest. Most (but not all) of these MPs belong to a particular political party, and the political party who gains a plurality (but not necessarily a majority) of seats in the House of Commons gets to form the government. The leader of that party becomes the prime minister, and he serves in that role only so long as he retains a) the confidence of the party he represents, and b) the support of 50 percent + 1 of the MPs in the House. You may recall that this is not always the case in Canada, as the minority parliaments between 2004-2011 will attest.

McCullough does manage to figure out that there is not just one person ruling the country— there are, in fact, 30 members of Trudeau's cabinet, himself included—who are, yes, appointed by the prime minister, but elected by the public at large. There are also 153 other Liberal Members of Parliament who regularly get to grind the prime minister's gears in closed-door sessions on politics and policy.

In Turkey, Erdogan jailed some 29 elected opposition politicians.

Of course, in Canada, when a party has a majority of seats, prime ministers generally do not have to worry about the confidence checks of the House of Commons. And McCullough is correct to observe that parties tend to end up with majority governments without winning a majority of the popular vote. But this is more of a problem with the particular electoral system we use to elect our politicians, rather than a problem inherent in the parliamentary system itself. Ironically, Trudeau campaigned and won on a promise to reform our electoral system, which he then broke. I have no idea why this criticism doesn't appear anywhere in McCullough's op-ed (perhaps because he spent a long time defending it when the previous prime minister was in power) because it's a definite slam dunk against the failings of governance in Trudeau's Canada.

McCullough then proceeds to argue that "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 Canadian Senate, of course, has a lot of problems. It is by its nature anti-democratic, but also partly obstructionist. It was established deliberately to be stacked with elites who would ensure that the democratic rabble in the House of Commons wouldn't do anything drastic. Political fads and elected officials may come and go, but the Senate is forever.

Of course, given its explicitly anti-democratic bent, the Senate has always been viewed problematically as Canadian political culture became increasingly democratic over the course of the 20th century. There is an expectation of rubber-stamping based on predictably partisan appointments, but this is partly an effort to skirt the crisis of legitimacy involved in unelected and unaccountable Senators thwarting the democratic mandate of the Commons. Despite this, it's not entirely unusual for the Senate to mutilate or kill legislation kicked up to it from the Commons (see, infamously, the case of Bill C-279). The Senate continues to retain many obstructionist elements, much to the chagrin of abolitionists like prairie populists and New Democrats.

On the other hand, it has repeatedly blocked unconstitutional legislation from sailing through, which is a direct check on the prime minister's power. Good luck doing that in Ankara.

But ironically, although McCullough mentions that Trudeau remains staunchly in favour of an appointed Senate, he fails to mention that the prime minister's half-baked effort to reform the institution may have made the Red Chamber more of an obstacle to prime ministerial power rather than the other way around. In 2014, when Justin Trudeau emerged from his third-party obscurity to summarily evict all 32 Liberal Senators from the party and force them to sit as independents, it promised a remedy to Canada's woes around the Senate without the attendant national nightmare of reopening the constitution.

On its face, it seemed like a solid move: it would break the prime minister's control of the upper chamber, and return the Senate to a more pure embodiment of its original vision. In the new post-Liberal Senate, the best and the brightest in Canadian society would freely and soberly debate the country's laws, beholden to no government's interest or partisan agenda.

It's debatable whether or not the new "independent" senators are actually all that independent, but by all accounts they seem to be causing headaches for the governing party. McCullough will be relieved to know, at least, that the prime minister's bizarre experiment in Senate reform may actually make it more difficult to legalize marijuana after all—even if it flies in the face of his argument about Canadian dictatorship.

After briefly misrepresenting the Senate, McCullough asserts that " 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." There has been an inarguable, continuous drift towards centralizing political power in the Prime Minister's Office away from its traditional sources in the party caucus, Cabinet, or the federal bureaucracy. It is also quite clear that the influence of the PMO strictly limits the freedom of backbench government MPs to dissent from the party line.

But it's also incorrect to describe the operation of party organizations in Canada as "rigid hierarchy." Party membership generally has a significant role in framing the party's (and thus the prime minister's) policy agenda. Trudeau's marijuana legalization programme, to again cite McCullough's worst-case scenario, was a grassroots initiative stemming from the party's 2012 convention (and, in fairness, the prime minister appears to be as uncomfortable around the topic of drugs as McCullough). The party membership is also the ultimate arbiter of the leader's fate, as we saw last year in Edmonton when the NDP unceremoniously axed Thomas Mulcair. While this traditionally doesn't happen to a sitting first minister, it's not unheard of in Canadian history. While the thrust, especially in government, is almost always from the top down, it's inaccurate to describe Canadian political parties as "rigid hierarchies."

If McCullough actually watched votes in the House of Commons, he'd know that free votes—at least on matters other than the budget, or core partisan issues—are quite normal. The Liberal government's medical assistance in dying legislation, for example, split the Conservatives down the middle and prompted several Liberals to vote against their own government.

Plus, given McCullough's complaint here, it is strange that two paragraphs later he blasts "Michael Chong, a would-be leader of the Conservatives, [for] successfully push[ing]... a new law allowing elected prime ministers to be deposed and replaced mid-term by their parliamentary caucus," at the same time as he is bemoaning the omnipotence of the prime minister and the lack of free votes in Parliament. What the fuck, dude?

McCullough's final, direct complaint about the Canadian parliamentary system is that "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." It is a small technical point to observe that in Canada it's the Governor General - the Crown's representative—making many of these appointments on the prime minister's advice, rather than the prime minister directly. But I get McCullough's point and I share his republican commitment to ignoring the existence of the monarchy where possible.

While there is no formal veto power from parliament or elsewhere over who is ultimately appointed to these positions, there are actually a number of oversight and vetting committees in place to determine which candidates the prime minister is able to recommend to Cabinet for appointment. This is particularly true in the case of Canada's judiciary branch of government, the Supreme Court. Reforms to the appointment process began in 2004 under Paul Martin and continued under the tenure of Stephen Harper.

Justin Trudeau and Tayyip Erdogan. Source, YouTube

Under the current regime, an ad hoc advisory committee composed of one MP from each recognized party, a retired judge, representatives from Canadian law societies and two prominent citizens who are neither lawyers nor judges. Because the makeup of the Supreme Court is heavily regionalized—in keeping with federalism, the organizing principle of the Canadian system of government—the committee also includes two representatives from the Attorney General from the region in which the vacancy occurs.

This committee reviews a list of seven potential candidates submitted by the federal Minister of Justice, and the prime minister then chooses which candidate to recommend for appointment to the Governor General from a shortlist of three. The appointed candidate then appears before a parliamentary committee for questioning, although this committee does not have the authority to confirm or deny the appointment.

Either way, you can be reasonably confident that the judiciary and the Queen's representative in Canada would frown on any attempt by Trudeau to impose a state of emergency and effectively remove the rule of law for nearly a full year.

I describe this process here in exhausting detail because it is central to understanding the makeup and purpose of the Canadian judiciary, and also because JJ McCullough does not seem to understand how it works or what it does.

He laments in his article that "the Canadian Supreme Court did repeatedly overturn a number of [Harper's] legislative initiatives, but by the end of his term Harper had appointed seven of the court's nine justices, so whose fault was that?"

Leaving aside the fact that one of Harper's Supreme Court appointments was actually blocked by the Court itself (a shocking limit on the prime minister's supposedly limitless power), McCullough here seems to be ignoring that there is a nomination process at all, or that the role of the Court in Canadian political life is to interpret the constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as checks on parliamentary power. In fact, most of the criticism of the judiciary's role in Canadian politics—especially from right-wing commentators—is that the post-1982 Supreme Court actually possesses too much independent power to circumscribe parliament and its prime minister, not the other way around. As an aspiring right-wing iconoclast, McCullough would do well to familiarize himself with the Canadian conservative canon.

Basically, McCullough appears to be confusing the problems generated by a majoritarian electoral system with the functioning of the Westminster parliamentary system itself. It is entirely possible that, as David Moscrop very elegantly argues in Maclean's, that he actually just doesn't like how Canadian democracy works. And that's fair! As I have tried to show in a few places here, there are lots of problems and shortcomings with our system as it currently exists. I don't necessarily love the status quo either—for the record, my considered opinion is fuck constitutional monarchy—and I think Canadians should actually spend a lot more time getting mad about it in public.

But it is much more likely that JJ McCullough genuinely misunderstands the Canadian political system. This leaves him unable to articulate his complaints about it in a meaningful way, and instead he relies on his obvious fetishism of the American presidential system, with its tripartite separation of powers, to fill in the gaps of both his knowledge and political imagination. Ultimately, this leaves his adorably earnest attempt to troll North American liberals into equating Justin Trudeau with Recep Erdogan pretty toothless.

Overall, I would give his op-ed a C. Next time, I would recommend that Mr. McCullough pays more attention in Poli Sci 101 instead of doodling in his notebook.

Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.

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