"The Friendly Dictatorship"
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 15 Nov 2001, p. 194-207
Simpson, Jeffrey C., Speaker
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Item Type
How Canada has become a one-party state. How "The Friendly Dictatorship is about how our system of government has evolved, and why Canadians are increasingly turned off by that sytem. Supporting evidence for that view. Finding a better balance among the objectives of democracy, transparency, accountability and representativeness. An explication and detailed discussion follows, including a review of Canadian politics. Suggestions for change. Concerns for democracy - concerns for Canada.
Date of Original
15 Nov 2001
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Full Text
Jeffrey C. Simpson
National Affairs Columnist, The Globe and Mail
Chairman: John C. Koopman
2nd Vice-President, The Empire Club of Canada
Head Table Guests

Kevyn Nightingale, CA, FCA, President, International Tax Services Group and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; The Reverend Canon Paul Feheley, Rector, St. George's Anglican Church, Oshawa; Anton Vidgen, Student, Western Technical Commercial School and President, TDSB SuperCouncil; Douglas M. Gibson, President and Publisher, McClelland Stewart Ltd.; The Hon. David R. Peterson, PC, QC, Chairman and Senior Partner, Cassels Brock & Blackwell and Former Premier of Ontario; Robert J. Dechert, Partner, Gowling LaFleur & Henderson LLP and Past President, The Empire Club of Canada; The Hon. Barbara J. McDougall, CFA, PC, OC, President, The Canadian Institute of International Affairs and Former Secretary of State, External Affairs, Government of Canada; and Richard Addis, Editor, The Globe and Mail.

Introduction by John Koopman

Humbert Wolfe did not have such an exalted view of journalists. In "The Celestial City" he wrote:

"You cannot hope
To bribe or twist
Thank God! The
Canadian Journalist
But, seeing what
The man will do
Unbribed, there's
No occasion to."

Here at the Empire Club we look more favourably upon journalists. For the past 100 years the Empire Club has been welcoming leading journalists to our podium. Their number includes Sir John Willison a former Editor of The Globe (before it merged with The Mail), Grattan O'Leary then of the Ottawa Journal, Claude Ryan when he was Publisher of Le Devoir (and still a happy journalist), Charles Lynch then Ottawa Bureau Chief for Southam, Roy Megarry the then Publisher of The Globe and Mail, Hugh Sidey the then Washington Bureau Chief for Time Magazine, Joe Schlesinger and in 1967 Peter Jennings just back from an extended trip to Vietnam at the height of the war and the late Katherine Graham, the former Owner and Publisher of The Washington Post. We have had Allan Fotheringham twice, and this of course is your second visit to the club.

The Empire Club's attitude to journalists was best expressed on October 6, 1966 when Richard S. Malone, the Publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press, was our guest and in his introduction of Mr. Malone, our President Mr. Bredin Stapells said:

"Someday I will pass by the great gates of gold

and see a man pass through unquestioned and bold, A saint? I'll ask, and old Peter'll reply:

`No he carries a pass--he's a newspaper guy."'

It is hard to imagine today but at the close of the 18th and in the early part of the 19th century newspapers were insignificant actors on the public stage and the London Times actually printed the details of gruesome murders and more salacious sex crimes in Latin so that only the clergy and other educated citizens could read them. In Canada today however, we live in a government of men and morning newspapers... and your column and a coffee is a common breakfast staple for me and tens of thousands of other Canadians.

In reviewing your recent book, Jennifer Curtis wrote that you were a journalist morphing into an academic. I think she meant this kindly. She went on to say that your book is required reading for anyone who cares about the nation. The book apparently describes Jean Chretien as the Sun King--the pivot around which all revolves. He describes both our parliamentary system and the Prime Minister as "imperial." I caution Mr. Simpson however that at the Empire Club the word "imperial" is not typically used as a perjorative adjective.

During Catherine Charlton's presidency in 1984, and incidentally she is here with us today and was the first woman President of the Empire Club, she hosted Peter Worthington who said: "It is premature to write off the Liberals until the end of the century as some people do. Nothing is so resilient as a political party and no wound heals as quickly as political wounds."

I see Bob Dechert at the head table to my right and he certainly hopes that Worthington was right. Next to him I see Barbara McDougall, and she no doubt shares that hope. As for me, I have been a member of both their parties at one time or another and I am not so optimistic. To my left I see former Premier Peterson and I am sure he is thinking "What's the problem?"

Mr. Simpson is currently the National Affairs Columnist for The Globe and Mail, a position he has held since 1984. He has won a long list of literary awards such as the Governor General's Award for non-fiction, the National Magazine Award for political writing and the Hyman Solomon Award for Excellence in Public Policy. His columns have been published in an equally long list of well known and respected magazines and periodicals. He has also lectured at a number of great universities such as Oxford, Edinburgh, Harvard, Princeton, Brigham Young and John Hopkins--universities that I could not get into as a student.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is with great pleasure I welcome Mr. Jeffrey Simpson to the podium of The Empire Club of Canada.

Jeffrey Simpson

"The Friendly Dictatorship" is an admittedly pejorative title. After all, at least some Canadians would not describe the federal government as friendly. And Canada is not literally a dictatorship. We have various political parties, rights grounded in the common law and the Charter, and a free press.

But de facto, we have become a one-party state. An effective parliamentary system--and I would say a healthy democracy--has at least one party ready and capable of replacing the existing government by winning an election. Clearly, no party was ready and capable in the last election, and it does not look like one will be for the next one. Canada therefore increasingly resembles Japan, where one party always exercises power, and political change only occurs when that party decides to switch leaders. At least they do that often in Japan; in Canada under the Jean Chretien Liberals we don't.

Despite the pejorative title and arresting cover photograph, "The Friendly Dictatorship" is not a screed against Jean Chretien and the Liberals. It is critical of them in certain areas, but it is more about how our system of government has evolved, and why Canadians are increasingly turned off that system.

The supporting evidence for that observation is mounting. The most obvious is Canadians' disinclination to vote. Only 61 per cent of those on the voters' list in 2000 bothered to cast ballots. That participation rate puts Canada near the bottom in terms of voter turnout in western democracies. Voter participation has been falling in many western democratic countries, but it has fallen farther and faster in Canada than anywhere else. Another obvious fact is the documented decline in respect for politicians of all stripes. They are now held in only slightly higher esteem than used-car salesmen. Parliament itself is regarded as an institution of national scorn, where MPs too often are seen to be conducting themselves like kids embroiled in a schoolyard fight. Ordinary MPs, reduced to partisan role-playing rather than genuine legislating, are frustrated with their lot and citizens are frustrated with them.

I believe our political system is out of balance, and because it is out of balance it is increasingly out of favour. A healthy system should have various objectives. It should be effective, in the sense of being capable of getting things done, but also democratic, transparent, accountable and representative. Our parliamentary system is certainly effective--a prime minister with a majority in Parliament can do anything he likes within that system, but the parliamentary system and the electoral system that supports it are failing on the other counts: democracy, transparency, accountability and representativeness. We need to find a better balance among these objectives. Let me explain.

Within the parliamentary system, as it has evolved in Canada, the prime minister is like a Sun King. He is allpowerful. The Canadian prime minister has more unfettered power within this system than any other leader in a democracy. Put another way, he faces fewer checks or balances to that power than any other leader. We think of our system as parliamentary government, but what we really have is prime ministerial government within the trappings of a parliamentary system.

Think of the prime minister's power. He appoints every person of importance in the entire Government of Canada: all the ministers and parliamentary secretaries, the deputy ministers, senators, the head of state (the Governor General), the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the head of the armed forces, the heads of all crown corporations (including the chair and president of the arms-length Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), the information commissioner, the privacy commissioner, the official languages commissioner, even the ethics counsellor, who is responsible not to Parliament but to the prime minister. The prime minister does not just nominate these people; he appoints them without anyone or any institution able to reject his selection.

No Canadian prime minister has ever been unseated by his party. All the rewards and penalties in his party are for loyalty. Dissidents pay a heavy price in terms of blunted ambitions, and in extreme cases banishment from the party. His advisers exercise more influence in Ottawa than any cabinet minister. The cabinet system and civil service are designed to give him more information than anyone else. He can, if necessary, command pollsters to give him quick snapshots of public opinion. He controls the apparatus of his political party. He has wrongly been described as primus inter pares, first among equals, but he is, in fact, first. There are no equals.

There are, in fact and in theory, checks to his power. But these are blunt, infrequent and often ineffective. The most diffuse check is that of public opinion. A government is always trying to measure where it stands in the public's eyes. These days almost no important government initiative is taken without extensive focus group study or polling, or both. A government that loses track of public opinion has to work hard at it. And the public really only gets to express itself every four or five years in a general election, the calling of which is entirely at the prime minister's discretion, another example of his unfettered power. He always tries to select the best timing for his electoral chances, and if that means calling an election well before he needs to in order to capitalise on favourable political winds, as Mr. Chretien did in 2000, so be it.

Of course, the election is the supreme political test and the best chance for the public to express itself, but, as I shall argue in a moment, without an effective two-party system, the check of an election is more apparent than real.

As for Parliament itself, the fierce loyalty demanded of government MPs means that they can seldom demonstrate any dissent. Question Period is largely show, although sometimes a lively one that on occasion can put the government in a temporarily bad light. But that is all.

Critics scoff at the thesis of the imperial prime minister. They sniff, so what else is new? And they are right, up to a point. Power has always been largely centralised in the hands of the prime minister, but that a state of affairs has always prevailed does not by definition make it appropriate for contemporary realities. Moreover, prime ministerial power is now more centralised than ever, and the centralisation is out of step with the operating practices of other major institutions, the needs of modern government, and the expectations of citizens.

Hierarchical systems are increasingly out of favour elsewhere in modern societies. Private corporations now preach the gospel of flattening management structures, "inclusive" decision making, creating incentives at lower management levels. Command and control systems cannot maximise performance in large companies because they do not create sufficient positive incentives for employees to excel. Similarly, Canadians live and work in a society increasingly sceptical of hierarchy. We live in an age of a "decline of deference" towards all authority figures and established institutions. That is why Canadians look at the sharply hierarchical, command-and-control political system and say to themselves that it is neither what they are experiencing in their own lives, nor at least want to experience.

The system is out of whack with Canadians' expectations, but where can they turn? There is no coast-to-coast, coherent political alternative to the Liberals. Other parties may be strong in this region or that, but none can command sufficient support in enough places to defeat the Liberals.

The Liberals, whatever you think of them, cannot be blamed for the blunders of their adversaries. The most painful blunder is a misreading of Canadian history. A survey of that history reveals one abiding lesson: ideology fails. This is a diverse, essentially pragmatic country. Canada was, and remains, above all a political creation, an act of will that requires compromise and the art of making arrangements. What I call Procrustean politics--making the whole country fit a set of beliefs--has always failed. The only coalitions ever assembled to defeat the Liberals, or at least to create competitive party politics, have been pragmatic not ideological ones.

This is an apparently hard lesson to understand. The Bloc Quebecois, of course, has no interest in national politics, only the extension of provincial politics to the federal level. The NDP, alas, has been moving farther from the Canadian mainstream, and bids fair to move even farther. In the 1970s and 1980s, the NDP averaged 17-18 per cent in national elections; in the last three elections it has scored 9, 11 and 8 per cent of the votes. Roughly half, in other words, of what they used to secure. As long as the NDP does not follow the model of successful social democratic parties here and abroad, which have won by following the course of fiscal prudence and progressive social policies, but links arms with an array of interest groups, fails to understand and appreciate market economy and fights against globalisation, it will continue to be a marginal political force--to the great delight of the Liberals.

The Reform Party burst upon the political scene in the late 1980s as a combination of western protest and ideological conservatism. Its founders intended to break the mould of Canadian politics and create a new mould. They contributed to breaking the old mould all right by shattering the Conservative Party's coalition, and thereby contributed to creating a new mould called de facto Liberal Party rule. This surely was not what kind of new mould Reformers and Canadian Alliance members had in mind. But that is what has happened, not once but three times. After three failures to become a genuine national party--and after all the internecine struggles since the last defeat--the Alliance should recognise that Procrustean politics cannot work in Canada. As for the Conservatives, they have to recognise that the Reform Party did bring certain new ideas into Canadian politics that have some appeal; ideas that the Conservatives ignored when in office. The Conservatives have to recognise that they too are a rump party, with little support in important regions of Canada. Unless and until the Alliance and the Conservatives come together in a non-ideological union, neither will provide a serious threat to the governing Liberals.

Which brings us to voting turnout and the disengagement of Canadians from politics. In a healthy democracy, there is a periodic urge for change. In the last election, there were insufficient outlets for that urge. The Liberals did not change their leaders; none of the opposition parties could create a nation-wide challenge. That partly explains why voter turnout fell to such low levels. The interest in the last campaign was the lowest I had ever seen in my career as a journalist, and the turnout reflected that state of affairs.

But there is much more to the disengagement than a lack of competitive party politics. The Canadian political, system is also deeply unrepresentative in three ways, and each creates a certain disillusionment. First, fewer than half the members of the House of Commons are elected with more than half the votes in their constituencies. Second, government majorities in the Commons are built with fewer than half the national votes cast. Third, the Senate, by being appointed instead of elected, fails to represent the regional interests in the country, especially of smaller provinces, and does not offer a check and balance to prime-ministerial power. These distortions all flow from the first-past-the-post voting system and the unrepresentative, unelected Senate.

There is another problem with representation, too. MPs whom we elect are obliged to follow the party lineall the time. They are not allowed to exercise their independent judgment, at least not publicly. They may do so privately with colleagues in caucus, but once they appear in public, they toe the party line. Poll after poll reveals that Canadians do not approve of such rigidity. Canadians know that not every issue is a matter central to the government's programme and should therefore be considered a matter of confidence. They know that issues are complex and often cut across party lines, the anti-terrorism example being a prime example.

We should not be naive. The major reason why MPs are elected is because of party label. They stand before us at election time, yes as individuals, but also as party members. We vote for them, if voting studies can be believed, usually because they represent a leader, a team or a general view of the country's challenges with proposed solutions. It would be illogical, and frankly undemocratic, if having been elected as a party member the MP then turned around and exercised complete discretion to vote on everything as he or she saw fit. But conversely it strikes Canadians as somewhat silly that so little discretion exists for independent judgment, because that is not how they would like to live their lives or operate in their work environments.

These unrepresentative elements of our system make people feel the system does not reflect them. The majority of voters in a constituency who did not support the winning candidate must find it strange when the MP claims to speak for the people of his constituency. In Western Canada, people are frustrated that the preferences of vote-rich Ontario and Quebec overwhelm their own, and that breeds what is called western alienation, especially since there is no upper house that might mitigate the strength of Central Canada.

Disengagement springs from other sources too, some of them very deep. We now have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms which has vastly increased the power of the Supreme Court. People look to the courts rather than the political process as the venue for their political struggles. The size of government has shrunk, thereby taking certain issues out of the public domain. Governments have signed international agreements, notably in trade, that tie the hands of government. Governments that are smaller and more fettered than before are institutions perhaps not worthy of as much interest. Curiously, this disengagement is happening as the population is getting older, since older people tend to vote more often than younger ones. An aging population should be pushing up voter turnout, but it has not.

So what is to be done to make the system more representative, democratic, accountable and transparent, while retaining its virtue of being effective? How can we try to re-engage Canadians in their political process? I do not have all the answers by any stretch of the imagination.

Competitive party politics are indispensable, and that means, as I said, people on the right and left of the political spectrum recognising that they have to fit their policies to the complexities of the country, rather than squeezing those complexities into ideology. If they do not move towards mainstream Canadians, they will remain with influence but without power.

A change in attitudes would also help, especially in respecting Parliament and the capacity of MPs to periodically be seen to exercise their independent judgment.

And we need to improve the representativeness of our political system. We could change the voting for the Commons by instituting the Australian ballot that would ensure that every MP receives at least a majority of votes. Instead of voting for just one candidate, voters would list their candidates in order of preference. If none receives half the votes, the second preferences of the lowest candidate would be redistributed, a process that would continue until someone gets half the votes.

We also need an elected Senate. Canada is the only federation in the world without an upper house that is elected or appointed by the states or provinces. The Fathers of Confederation made one big mistake by opting for an appointed Senate. It lacks legitimacy, does not represent the regional dimensions of Canada, and does not provide a check or balance against the power of the prime minister.

Senate reform would require constitutional change, d we know how difficult that reform is in Canada. eally, I would like to see a Senate elected on propornal representation so that the maximum expression of iversity in each province could be reflected in the

ate. The Senate should be weighted in seats towards maller provinces. In the event of a standoff between the Ouse of Commons and Senate, it would be broken by a joint vote of both houses. Since constitutional reform might be a while in coming, I would encourage provinces to hold senatorial elections and dare the prime minister of,the day not to appoint those elected. We have to start somewhere in moving towards an elected Senate, just as the Americans did in the last century when some states began to hold elections instead of legislatures appointing senators.

I would also like to see a new way of financing political parties, eliminating corporate and union contributions that give certain individuals or interests a disproportionate influence over politicians. Quebec and Manitoba have already done this; the rest of Canada could usefully follow.

Canada's democracy is not a wreck. It could stand, however, plenty of improvement. Canadians are cynical about politicians and the democratic process, and some of that cynicism is well founded. My experience over a quarter of a century writing about politicians suggests, however, that the majority of men and women in politics is no more or less worthy than any other cross section of Canadians. There are scoundrels to be sure, and politics, as other occupations, attracts an assortment of decidedly second- or third-rate minds. There are careerists for whom it is hard to imagine another line of profitable work. There are blowhards and those for whom the elixir of power goes to their heads. But circles of the eternally virtuous exist only in heaven.

We do ourselves a disservice by denigrating all politicians as a national sport. We ought to be vigilant in monitoring them. Happily, Canadians have developed nicely satirical brand of humour about politics that p vents people in public life from getting too big for theft britches. We ought to get angry when they screw up, but we ought also to give credit when they do things right--which they do. We need not venerate them, but neither should we hack them apart. A humbling question for cycr ics is whether they could do any better; more humbling still, for them, would be their replies.

Politicians come, after all, from among us. They are our representatives, although we could reform our electoral system and governing institutions to make them more representative. If we give up on them, we are in effect giving up on ourselves, or at least on a part of the democratic belief that we can make a better country through the institutions of government. Citizens will always disagree about what would constitute a better country, and how to achieve it. That is the essence of democracy. The more effective, accountable, open and representative our democracy, the greater the chance that, through the clash of ideas and the interplay of political forces, we can inch, however slowly, toward that better country.

Concerns for democracy are really concerns for Canada. Citizens can contribute to a better country--and a better life for themselves and families--in a myriad of ways that do not involve politics. No institution, however, plays such a central role in defining society's values and priorities as does government. The institutions of government are our institutions, as citizens and taxpayers. The electoral system is our system, as citizens and voters. If we care enough about those institutions and that system, we can change them and so improve the functioning of our democracy. Apathy and cynicism are soulmates. They are on the rise, but they are democracy's foes and, as such, worth combating.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Kevyn ightingale, CA, FCA, President, International Tax Services Group d Director, The Empire Club of Canada.

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"The Friendly Dictatorship"

How Canada has become a one-party state. How "The Friendly Dictatorship is about how our system of government has evolved, and why Canadians are increasingly turned off by that sytem. Supporting evidence for that view. Finding a better balance among the objectives of democracy, transparency, accountability and representativeness. An explication and detailed discussion follows, including a review of Canadian politics. Suggestions for change. Concerns for democracy - concerns for Canada.