Style within the Centre: Pierre Trudeau, the War Measures Act, and the Nature of Prime Ministerial Power

By Munroe, H. D. | Canadian Public Administration, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Style within the Centre: Pierre Trudeau, the War Measures Act, and the Nature of Prime Ministerial Power


Munroe, H. D., Canadian Public Administration


The extent and nature of the power of the prime minister is a topic of perennial discussion in Canadian politics (Aucoin 1986; Bakvis 2001; Hockin 1977; Matheson 1976; Savoie 1999a, 1999b). This is particularly the case in popular discourse, where the tropes of the prime minister as autocrat or Canada as "elected dictatorship" have enjoyed enduring popularity (Bakvis 2001; Hockin 1977; Savoie 2008: 49). Scholarly work on prime ministerial power is more nuanced but hardly unanimous. Donald Savoie (1999a, 1999b, 2008) suggests that, over the past forty years, executive power has become concentrated in the hands of the prime minister as a result of centripetal political pressures--with dangerous consequences for Canadian democracy. Herman Bakvis (2001), on the other hand, asserts that the popular notion of prime minister as autocrat exaggerates the power of the office--in part because Canadian federalism acts as a significant, and often overlooked, constraint on prime ministerial action. In this view, which emphasizes continuity rather than change, work by Peter Aucoin (1986) provides an alternative explanation for the variations that Savoie identifies: that it is an individual prime minister's style of management that defines his or her exercise of power.

This article is relevant to both students and practitioners of public administration not only because it adds to our historical understanding of a pivotal moment in Canadian government but also because it sheds empirical light on an ongoing debate in the literature on prime ministerial power. Prime ministers can exercise far-ranging power within the (well-documented) constraints of federalism, but the way in which they do so is neither structurally determined nor automatically threatening to Canadian democracy.

The significance of Pierre Elliott Trudeau's ascendancy to the office of prime minister in 1968 is a point of contention between scholars of prime ministerial power. That Trudeau made significant changes to the central machinery of government in the early years of his stint as prime minister is widely acknowledged (Aucoin 1986: 9; Hockin 1977: 2; Matheson 1976: 87-98, 236-37; Radwanski 1978: 145-47; Savoie 1999a: 9, 1999b: 695). What is less clear is the effects that these changes have had on the power of the office. Savoie (1999b) interprets Trudeau's changes as the beginning of "court government," in which prime ministers govern by personal flat not only because they can but because they must: the combination of Trudeau's centralized legacy with the pressures of federalism, a twenty-four-hour news media, and globalization create both opportunity and incentive to do so. Aucoin (1986), on the other hand, suggests that Trudeau's changes reflected a personal style of rational management.

Savoie and Aucoin's theses are not incompatible; indeed, either or both could explain much of Canadian politics in the past four decades. They imply different conclusions about the trope of PM-as-autocrat, however: a reading of Savoie implies that the concentration of power in the hands of the prime minister is inherently threatening to Canadian democracy, while the implication of Aucoin's work is that--though certainly possible--this is not a logical necessity. In order to explore these contrasting implications, we must examine the exercise of power at moments where the expectations of the two theses diverge. This article examines how the "machine that Pierre built" (Radwanski 1978: 145) functioned in practice during one such moment of divergence: the October Crisis of 1970, and specifically the decision to invoke the War Measures Act. The analysis reveals that Trudeau remained committed to his style of "rational management" even in extremis, when the centralizing pressures that Savoie describes should have made themselves felt the most. This in turn suggests that although structural features of Canadian politics do tend to push power into the hands of the prime minister, how any particular incumbent exercises that power depends on his or her personal style of management--in other words, that it is style, not structure, that ultimately defines prime ministerial power. …

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