By October 2015, Stephen Harper will have been Prime Minister for nine years, placing him among the longest serving prime ministers of post-war Canada. Having been in power for this long suggests that his primeministership will be marked by several important legacies or accomplishments.
Typically, a political legacy can be defined in two different ways. The first consists of major policies such as legislation, tax measures, regulations and size of government that a prime minister has introduced and implemented during the entire term of office. The second kind of legacy is less tangible but equally important. This type of legacy refers to the state of the nation and especially the health of its public institutions at the conclusion of a prime minister’s term in office.
While there are many government institutions that will in time be scrutinized, this column looks at two of the most important: Parliament and the Cabinet. And while the Prime Minister still has the opportunity to make further changes during his term in office, there is certainly sufficient information at this stage to assess his major impact with respect to these two institutions.
Two major events in the 1970’s changed permanently the nature of governance in Canada. First, the introduction of TV into the House of Commons inaugurated the growing importance of sound bites and political grandstanding for the benefit of viewers. And secondly, the decision by Prime Minister Trudeau to centralize decision making in the Privy Council Office and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) jointly contributed to the decline of Parliament as an institution.
One important consequence of these developments is that Members of Parliament, on the government side as well as the opposition, have less authority to initiate policy, have less information and parliamentary time to hold the government to account, fewer opportunities to assess government spending and, most important, fewer opportunities to challenge the decisions of the executive.
At the same time, due to the pressures of globalization, prime ministers have broadened their presence on the international stage, strengthened even further their control over the Cabinet decision-making process, and increased the influence of their political staff by allowing the PMO staff to direct officials and to control the hiring practices in ministers’ offices.
As a result of the impact of centralizing executive responsibilities, most experts would agree that the concentration of power in the office of the Harper government is greater today than in any other democratic government with a federal cabinet system. Some have expressed the view that, “with the lack of checks and balances that used to characterize Parliament, the Prime Minister in Canada is perhaps the most unchecked head of government among the democracies.”
As a consequence, Parliament has become a weakened institution and all discussion is about the leader’s personal agenda. Two books written about the Harper style of government have concluded that Cabinet exists mostly to support the Prime Minister’s messages rather than to generate policy ideas on its own. In Harperland, Lawrence Martin reflects on a conversation with former Progressive Conservative Senator Lowell Murray, who had been a Mulroney-era cabinet minister. Murray observed that in Mulroney’s cabinet, there were at least some “strong ministers” whose observations and opinions could not be ignored, but suggested that since then the ministers’ role in policy and governance has declined. In Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada’s Radical Makeover, Michael Harris voices the concern that Prime Minister Harper’s unelected and unaccountable people in the Prime Minister’s Office are more powerful than current ministers and exercise more directive powers than any similar group in previous governments.
The concentration of power in the hands of the leader is not unique to Canada nor is it the exclusive domain of Westminster parliamentary systems. There are factors contributing to this phenomenon that exist in virtually all democracies. The 24-hour news cycle, the proliferation of oversight agencies whose role it is to hold governments to account on a regular basis, and the increasing complexity of cross-cutting policy challenges often demanding immediate responses from the leadership, create incentives for leaders to assert direct control over the decision-making process and the government’s messaging.
In this pre-election period, it might be useful for Canadians to reflect on this aspect of the Harper legacy and to contemplate whether a continuing move to centralize power in the office of the Prime Minister is in the best interest of citizens and the nation.