Prime Minister and Cabinet in Canada: An Autocracy in Need of Reform?

By Bakvis, Herman | Journal of Canadian Studies, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview
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Prime Minister and Cabinet in Canada: An Autocracy in Need of Reform?


Bakvis, Herman, Journal of Canadian Studies


It has been suggested that the Canadian prime minister tends to enjoy powers to a degree that is unhealthy in a democratic society. This article evaluates the "prime minister as autocrat" argument that has gained currency, if not in the academic literature, certainly in the popular media. It is suggested that while there has been a relative increase in the concentration of power in the centre - the centre defined as the prime minister, his entourage and key central agencies - the portrait of prime ministerial autocracy has been overdrawn. None the less, reforms are desirable. Particularly ones that create or enhance counterweights to prime ministerial power will likely improve Canadian democracy. These reforms should focus not so much on strengthening the role of individual MPs but on reinforcing the position of cabinet, the parliamentary caucus and senate vis-a-vis the prime minister. In this respect, five possible reforms are discussed, and their prospects of being adopted assessed: proportional representation for the House of Commons, an elected senate, strengthened parliamentary caucuses, a fixed time-table for elections and the New Zealand approach to the appointment of senior officials.

II a ete suggere que le premier ministre du Canada est enclin a jouir de ses pouvoirs d'une facon qui n'est pas swine pour une societe democratique. Cet article definit le premier ministre comme un autocrate, un argument qui est devenu courant, sinon dans les ecrits universitaires, tres certainement dans les medias populaires. On y suggere que, bien qu'il y ait eu une augmentation relative de la concentration du pouvoir vers le centre - le centre - le centre kant le premier ministre, son entourage et les principaux minist&es centraux - le portrait autocratique du premier ministre a ete exagere. Neanmoins, des reformer seraient les bienvenues. Celles qui creeraient ou permettraient une balance du pouvoir accrue face aux pouvoirs du premier ministre amelioreraient particulierement la democratie canadienne. Ces reformer devraient moins se concentrer sur le renforcement du role des deputes et davantage sur la position du Cabinet, du Caucus parlementaire et du Senat face au premier ministre. Dans cette perspective, on discute de cinq reformer possibles et on evalue leurs possibilites d'etre adoptees. Elles sont : la representation proportionnelle pour la Chambre des communes, un Senat elu, des Caucus parlementaires plus forts, un echeancier electoral fixe, et l'approche preconisee par la NouvelleMande concemant la nomination des hauts fonctionnaires.

Many will see in the results of the fall 2000 federal election evidence of unfettered prime ministerial power. The prime minister was able to dictate what he sensed was the optimal time for an election, well before the government's mandate was set to expire and despite resistance from within his own party. Those with a cynical turn of mind will also point to the strategic use of grants and contributions from Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) to shore up electoral support in critical ridings, including the prime minister's own riding in Quebec. And while the prime minister's judgement about election timing was vindicated by a splendid election victory, which saw an increase in both popular vote and seats, this judgement was distinctly at odds with the wishes of the Liberal caucus and those of several cabinet ministers.

In brief, in the orchestration of the 2000 election, one can find ample evidence to support the thesis that the Canadian prime minister - not just the current incumbent but the position generally - tends to enjoy powers to a degree that may be unhealthy in a democratic society. It is a thesis that has been in play for several decades (Schindeler; D. Smith), as captured in the notion of "elected dictatorship," and is certainly not exclusive to Canada. It is held to be applicable to most Westminster parliamentary systems (Foley; Weller). More recently it has come to have particular resonance in Canada.

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Prime Minister and Cabinet in Canada: An Autocracy in Need of Reform?
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