As a young man growing up in the America of the 1960s and 70s, I cut my political teeth on the Watergate scandal, which prompted me to change my undergraduate major from music to political science. The unfolding spectacle of Richard Nixon’s downfall, which had dragged on for two years before his resignation in August of 1974, left me somewhat envious of Canada’s Westminster system, which in principle allowed for an incapacitated leader to be turned out quickly on a nonconfidence vote before too much damage was done to the country’s political welfare.
Having lived in Canada for nearly 35 years, however, I’ve come to understand that our political system doesn’t work as tidily as I had thought in my youth. In fact, in many respects we have discarded the best of the British parliamentary/cabinet system and taken on some of the worst features of the American system. How so?
Under the Westminster constitution, backbench revolts within a political party are a potential check against an autocratic leader who might otherwise pursue unwise policies. Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and now Theresa May have had to watch their proverbial backs to ensure they keep their parliamentary caucus satisfied. May’s repeated lack of success in mobilizing support for a Brexit deal has reminded us once again how tenuous a prime minister’s leadership can be if the issue at stake is significant enough.
But that’s not true of Canada, where such threats are virtually unknown. Why? This is where the Americanization of our parties plays a role. One-hundred years ago, when party leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier died unexpectedly, federal Liberal leaders decided to have the forthcoming party convention choose the next leader. Prior to that year the parliamentary caucus had elected its leader, making him accountable to his most immediate colleagues. But a convention was already in the planning stages, as the party sought to heal the divisions over the 1917 conscription crisis. This new American-style party convention selected William Lyon Mackenzie King as its leader. The Conservatives followed suit several years later when they chose their new leader.
Since that time efforts to democratize the internal leader selection process have only deepened. At the start of the century, the grassroots election of Stockwell Day as leader of the short-lived Canadian Alliance quickly went sour, as relations with his colleagues deteriorated. Because he was not effectively accountable to his caucus, disaffected members had little choice but to leave the party and start another. After all, “the People” had spoken, and who were his fellow MPs to presume to contradict “the People”?
If we learn any lesson from this, it should be that “the People” are not a responsible agent capable of holding leaders to account. The more leaders are beholden to so nebulous an entity, the less responsible they will become to their immediate colleagues. This has effectively created an unbalanced constitution in which prime ministerial power trumps even so hallowed a convention as ministerial responsibility. If scandal overtakes one of the cabinet-level departments, the minister will stay on if the prime minister wants him or her to do so. Opposition calls for resignation will go nowhere.
As I write, US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are embroiled in scandals. For Trump the line between public duties and private brand boosting has always been hazy. Although the Mueller report found insufficient evidence of collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia in the 2016 election, it has not altogether exonerated him of obstruction of justice. His success in appealing to disaffected voters comes despite his evident personal defects and his claimed admiration for foreign autocrats such as Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Even if Mueller had found overt evidence of Russian ties, one senses that discovering the proverbial smoking gun would not have dented Trump’s popularity by much. After all, during the darkest days of Watergate, President Nixon’s popularity ratings never dipped below 20 percent, as a hard core of supporters refused to budge, often blaming the media for his troubles.
Here in Canada, the Prime Minister is a likeable figure, with good looks and a winsome personality. Yet he too has sometimes breached the boundary between public welfare and private advantage, as seen in his questionable decision to take his family on holiday to the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas in 2016. The Aga Khan Foundation is a registered lobbyist on Parliament Hill and has had a number of dealings with the government, raising the spectre of potential conflict of interest.
The current controversy over SNC-Lavalin – SNC might jokingly be said to mean “See? No Charges!” – is much more serious, as it involves political interference in a criminal investigation. The resignations of former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott from the Treasury Board have tarnished Trudeau’s reputation, possibly irreparably.
If Mueller finds credible evidence of wrongdoing in Trump’s case, removing Trump from office will not be easy, as the impeachment process is a lengthy one. Had Nixon not resigned first, Congress may eventually have removed him from office, but the drama could have dragged on into 1975 or 76, the latter of which was an election year.
In our case, Trudeau’s woes have come several months before an election, which could see him and his party defeated. Although many Liberals would undoubtedly be happy to see him go first, choosing a new and untried leader this late would leave the Liberals at a disadvantage relative to Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives.
My tentative prediction? Trudeau’s party will stick with him for lack of an obvious alternative. Of course, I’ve been wrong before, especially, it seems, in my youthful enthusiasm for a system that does not, after all, allow for as speedy a change in government as I had once assumed.
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