Canada’s political institutions need reforms

Three reforms Canada could make to restore a responsible government.

It is understandable that Canadians would become increasingly frustrated with the country’s political system. Our constitution is generally said to be characterized by responsible government, the central principle of our system since 1848. Responsible government means that the government of the day, led by the Prime Minister, is responsible to parliament for everything it does. But we might be forgiven for thinking that it was long ago replaced by prime-ministerial government.

Indeed, the party leader generally has virtually total control over his or her parliamentary caucus, with rigid party discipline keeping in line potentially troublesome backbenchers. This is far different from the United Kingdom, the country to which our constitution is “similar in principle,” as the Constitution Act, 1867 famously puts it. No Canadian PM has had to endure the sorts of backbench revolts that plagued Margaret Thatcher’s or Tony Blair’s governments in the UK.


Over the decades, this imbalance has worsened. Efforts to democratize the leader selection process more thoroughly have not really empowered the grassroots, as many would like to see. Instead, they have disempowered the parliamentary caucus, increasing the dominance of the prime minister. The People (with an upper-case P) are too nebulous an entity to exercise effective control over an executive, but a party’s parliamentary caucus is small enough and more intimately associated with its leader to keep him or her in check.

This reality has led to a paradox: an effort to extend the validity of democracy throughout a political system inadvertently contributes to a rise of Napoleonic leadership and an erosion of democracy. The United States has experienced this with Donald Trump, whose evident narcissism threatened to unravel the system from within and to undo decades of carefully nurtured international relationships.

Canada has always been a hybrid of British and American ways. Unfortunately, in my judgement, we have set aside the best features of Westminster and adopted some of the worst features of the American presidential model. Similar efforts to democratize our system have only served to make the prime minister less accountable and to bring to the surface undesirable autocratic proclivities.


That Justin Trudeau could request a ridiculously early dissolution from a compliant and toothless governor general only underscores the deep imbalance in our constitution. If the Queen’s representative is supposed to play the role of a constitutional watchdog, as some have put it, she is failing utterly in this, hemmed in by the fiction that a PM with a democratic mandate should not be second-guessed. The Fathers of Confederation would not be pleased.

So what can we do? There is always room for political reform, but three specific ones are especially urgent. First, return the authority to elect and depose a party leader to the parliamentary caucus. Our PM is supposed to be first among equals, and his cabinet ministers colleagues, not underlings.

Second, extend the term of a governor general to 10 or more years. I rather enjoyed seeing the Queen dressing down Margaret Thatcher in the otherwise depressing fourth season of The Crown. Thatcher’s policy towards apartheid-era South Africa was threatening the unity of the Commonwealth, and the Queen is thought to have taken her PM to task for this. It’s difficult to imagine our new governor general Mary Simon doing this with Justin Trudeau. A longer serving governor general might be able to take a longer view of things, as the Queen herself does.

Third, codify the governor general’s responsibilities, including specifying the circumstances under which she might refuse the advice of her PM. Leaving this all up to unwritten convention has not served us well, and it has only increased the PM’s lack of accountability.

Canada has solid political institutions. However, they could do with some tweaking to restore a better balance and to ensure that they continue to do public justice. More on this in a future column.


Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *