It’s time to decentralize the PM’s power

Does the PM have too much power? A deeper look into the Canadian system

The results of the Samara 2012 Citizens’ Survey revealed a decline of democratic satisfaction among Canadian citizens. Such results indicate that the quality of Canadian democracy is deteriorating. One reason for such a deficit is the excessive powers bestowed upon the PM.

It has been argued that it is undemocratic for the PM to possess certain powers of control over the House—and this is particularly salient in cases of a minority government. Indeed, the PM exercises significant control over the operations within the House of Commons: the PM may summon, prorogue and dissolve Parliament, as well as designate certain matters as votes of confidence. The PM’s ability to control the House is strongest when he enjoys a majority government in Parliament—given that he is justifiably assured that a majority of MPs will vote to approve his legislative proposals. However, this power to control is not diminished by a minority government. For example, Harper’s 2006 minority government won more seats in the House than the Liberals (124 to 103) but clearly not a majority (out of 338 seats). Yet, this did not diminish Harper’s control over the House. According to the unwritten constitution, as PM, Harper became the head of government, and, hence, is entitled to the previously aforementioned ways of controlling Parliament. Since it has already been argued that PMs of majority government have too much control, then it seems especially inappropriate for a PM of a minority government, who lacks a majority of voter approval (a fundamental democratic tenet), to possess such control.

In rebuttal, political science professor Peter Aucoin posits in Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government, this concentration of power in the PM may actually be a strength of the Westminster model and democracy by promoting efficiency. The government’s power of controlling the House stems from its ability to retain votes of confidence. As W.T. Stansbury notes, even minority governments can thus provide “efficient governance” by being supported by opposition party votes. For instance, Harper’s 2006 minority government allowed him to function as if he had a majority. In May 2006, Harper easily passed a government budget including tax and GST cuts by garnering the NDP’s support on votes of confidence. In a way, excessive concentration of power, supported by the PM’s ability to pass votes of confidence, allows the PM to execute his decisions definitively and efficiently.

However, I agree with Robert Martin, who, in Crosscurrents: Contemporary Political Issues, gives an alternative suggestion that excessive prime ministerial power may be more so a weakness, rather than a strength, of the Westminster model. This is because the lack of explicit rules in Canada’s unwritten constitution leaves it open to exploitation by the executive who may abuse it for his own partisan advantage. For instance, since the constitution does not specify PM term dates, this permitted PM Chretien to call two snap elections in 1997 and 2000 to maximize the Liberal party’s chances of re-election. Chretien clearly abused the system for his own partisan advantage, but it is the pitfall of the subjective nature of the unwritten constitution for allowing it.

Another contested issue surrounding the PM’s power is the absence of effective constraints needed to hold him sufficiently responsible. Some may oppose to this by stating that the opposition in the House does, in fact, provide effective constraint through their ability to propose motions of nonconfidence that may result in the removal of the government party. However, in reply, the PM—especially if he heads a majority government—can easily circumvent such motions by ensuring that he always retains the confidence of the House through party discipline. MPs in the House, regardless of their party, have reasons to dissuade them from voting against the PM. First, the Canada Elections Act gives the PM power to approve MPs of his government and garnering such approval results in MP loyalty to the PM. Second, the PM also has the power to expel MPs from government caucuses. The possibility of expulsion serves as a deterrent for MPs seeking to defy the PM. Third, only the PM has the ability to personally speak with the Governor General and this may prove to be a disadvantage to the opposition. The PM has more opportunities to persuade the Governor General to execute the reserve powers of the Crown in his favor.