Recent Work on Canadian Political Institutions
Andre Blais, Donald E. Blake, and Stephane Dion. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press; Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1997.
Patrick Malcolmson and Richard Myers are among the political scientists who regret that the discipline has "moved away from the study of government and political institutions in an attempt to explain political phenomena in terms of economic, sociological, psychological and anthropological phenomena." Instead, they argue, "the starting point for a sound understanding of Canadian politics is to focus on the basic institutions of government." Three of the other four books in this varied collection do deal with government institutions - the public service, the House of Commons and the courts - while the fifth concerns a quasi-governmental institution, the New Democratic Party. This review can thus be said to examine recent books on Canadian political institutions, but not all of them depend on an institutional or neo-institutional approach.
The Canadian Regime has about 200 pages of text and 50 pages of Constitution Acts, 1867 and 1982. Malcolmson and Myers aim for a "short and clear account of Canadian government." Given the "poor condition of civic education in contemporary Canada," their target audience is first-year political science students and ordinary citizens who want to be better informed. They hope "to articulate the inner logic and coherence of the regime," that is, to explain the interactions among the political institutions as well as their underlying principles.
The book is a fairly basic "civics" text, which briefly describes the constitution, federalism, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Crown, cabinet and prime minister, Parliament and the judiciary. It looks beyond this institutional base to include chapters on elections, political parties and "interest groups, public opinion, and democratic citizenship." Although they eschew theoretical approaches beyond their affection for institutions, the authors make reference to Aristotle, Mill and Locke in their categorization of political regimes and in their discussion of the fundamental principles of equality and liberty. What they say is clearly written, necessarily condensed, and conventional; most theoretical questions are handled well; and while some of their examples are excellent, others are hypothetical when better "real" examples exist. They touch upon such controversial questions as the merits of majority and minority governments, the reserve powers of the Crown, fixed election dates, the federal spending power, Michael Mandel's critique of the legalization of politics, prime ministerial government, the principle of ministerial responsibility, the effectiveness of backbenchers, the Triple-E Senate, the effects of the single-member plurality electoral system, party ideology and the "horse-race" coverage of election campaigns.
The book's main strength is its defence of the existing parliamentary system, with its executive dominance, party discipline, institutionalized opposition and accountability provided by the principle of responsible government. It sees no reason to look to American institutions to improve the operation of the Canadian system. The explanations of the components of the constitution, the conventions of responsible government, the constitutional amending formulas, Charter cases such as Southam and Oakes and the Thomas Berger affair, are impressive. Key terms are listed at the end of each chapter and discussion questions are at the end of the book.
While the authors succeed in their general explanation of the Canadian political regime and in clarifying basic principles, they falter on many of the details. Explaining such a broad subject in 200 pages leads to oversimplifications, such as in collapsing several phases of Canadian federalism and in devoting only three pages to the civil service. …