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The divine right of Prime Ministers

By Stuart Hertzog
March 4th, 2009

Canada has moved to a Royal Court system of government

Court government and the collapse of accountability book cover

court government and the collapse of accountability in canada and the united kingdom

By Donald J. Savoie
University of Toronto Press, 2008
ISBN 978-0-8020-2 (cloth) $75
ISBN 978-0-8020-4 (paper) $35

BOOK REVIEW If you’re wondering why every recent prime minister starts behaving like an autocrat once in office, it’s because Canada and the UK have both moved to a Court system of government, explains University of Moncton public administration professor Donald Savoie in this illuminating and insightful book.

It’s not exactly light reading, but Savoie’s book is the best available explanation of the state of our nation today, and why so many of Her Majesty’s subjects are being turned off by Canada’s federal politicians, who have come to dominate a politicised civil service.

A book with such a long title may not be your preferred literary cup of English Breakfast, but Savoie’s thorough discourse will enlighten anyone trying to make sense of the failure of the recent coalition, or the élitist, arrogant behaviour of Stephen Harper and his princely prime-ministerial predecessors.

Westminster-Whitehall model

The delicate relationship between Westminster and Whitehall, the centre of Britain’s civil service in London, slowly evolved over the almost eight centuries following King John of England’s acquiescence to the magna carta in 1215. This foundational act of western democracy ended the divine right of monarchs to unilaterally decide the affairs of state.

Until the early 1970s, Canada’s parliamentary system followed the Westminster-Whitehall model of governance, which recognised a clear distinction between the government in parliament and the civil service. The notion of ministerial responsibility and the accountability of government to parliament both rest on this crucial division of players.

An ideal civil service, according to sociologist and political scientist Max Weber, would deal with all citizens equally without regard to their position or wealth, according to a set of defined rules. Politicians would set policy after receiving impartial advice from their civil servants, who would then devise and efficiently administer suitable public programs.

No more shiny-suited bureaucrats

But the rise of neo-conservative politicians such as Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the USA; the growing power of trans-national corporations bent on creating and satisfying individualistic consumerism that now dominate a globalised market; plus the growing complexity of government in a technological environment, ended what some observers have considered to be the Golden Age of Canadian civil servitude, which some believe was the two decades after WWII.

By degrees, the top échelons of the civil service adopted the attitudes and characteristics of their political and corporate masters. Not longer dedicated, self-effacing, moderately-paid, impartial career civil servants wearing sensible suits with pants worn shiny by long use, today’s Deputy Ministers are highly-paid and often very public players focussed primarily on doing whatever is needed to further their own highly-mobile careers.

Primarily, this means protecting their minister from parliamentary pratfalls, and cobbling together highly-visible programs designed to achieve whatever policies the party is power currently prefers.

Concentration of power

One result has been a growing gap between the Ottawa-based, upper management of the civil service and their provincial line managers and program staff. Even more important, the erosion of the Whitehall civil service model has been accompanied by an increasing concentration of power into the hands of the leadership of the major political parties.

Power has flowed to the party leaders mainly through the concentration of corporate media ownership, which focusses only on Question Period plus whatever stories of government corruption by civil servants or politicians it can root out from behind the veil of government secrecy.

Add to this the increasing complexity of government budgeting, with programs spread horizontally between many ministries and agencies or tucked into a bewildering number of budgetary envelopes, and the result is a witches brew of confusion that leaves Opposition MPs incapable of holding to account any government, minister, program, or civil servant.

Our latest Sun King

If you’ve stuck with this so far, good for you. Savoie takes almost 350 pages to explain it all. The bottom line is that starting with Trudeau in the ’70s, each Canadian prime minister, empowered by a very top-down, hierarchical, Canada Elections Act, has become the latest Sun King.

Instead of parliament being the highest authority, political power is now concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) in both the UK and Canada. Not even cabinet ministers have any real sway once the prime minister has decided on a course of action after consulting his advisors.

The strangest aspect of this is that Canadian and British citizens do not actually vote for this powerful person, who in effect rules their respective country. By tradition, the prime minister is the leader of the political party that won the most seats in a general election. Only party members choose their leader, and sometimes even that convention is bypassed.

Parliamentary reform needed

There’s lately been much focus and activity around election reform, with referenda on some form of proportional representation taking place so far in two Canadian provinces. Here in British Columbia, we are getting a second kick at the proportional representation can this year.

After reading professor Savoie’s thought-provoking work, I’m now more convinced than ever that we are not going to see improved democracy in Canada or the UK until we have both electoral and parliamentary reform.

The future of Canadian democracy demands no less than that.

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