A challenge to Canadian political scientists

Given current events, it would be a shame if Parliament continues to be under-studied

The possibility of the Governor General handing power to the opposition after the government loses a future confidence vote is obviously historic. In fact, no matter what happens, whether Michaëlle Jean agrees to dissolve parliament, sends Stephen Harper back to the House to try again, or if the opposition backs down, it will make Canadian political history.

Questions regarding the idea of responsible government (that the government is responsible to the House and not directly to the people), the discretionary power of the Governor General, and the ability for a coalition to hold the confidence of the House should give political scientists much to chew on in the coming years.

I say should, because there is evidence to suggest that Canadian political science might not be equipped to give such monumental events the attention and rigour they deserve.

Last year, the University of Saskatchewan`s David E. Smith published The People`s House of Commons. In his review of literature in the field, Smith noted that Parliament is not an area that holds all that much interest for scholars of Canadian politics:

[I]n the 1990s, the Canadian Journal of Political Science published nine articles that include in their title the word Parliament or the name of any one of its three parts; between 1991 and 2001, the program, of the annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association listed on average fewer than one session (similarly defined) per year in its ‘Canadian’ section. The categorization is disputable since some papers in the same section deal, for example with political parties and party discipline. Still Such professional incuriousity deserves notice, especially when placed alongside frequent presentations each year in the public policy and public law section of the program (on such subjects as the charter, the judiciary, the courts and policy making).

To add to Smith’s analysis, since 2000 the Canadian Journal of Political Science has, as in the 1990s, published only nine articles (by my count) that deal directly with Canadian Parliament. Seven of these have been book reviews. The journal is often dominated by the study of rights, identity politics, with a smattering of papers on public policy and electoral politics.

There is, as Smith notes, the Canadian Parliamentary Review, a publication with contributions from parliamentarians, non-academic researchers as well as political scientists, but it is not a properly academic publication. Its articles do not advance scholarship in the same way that traditional organs of scholarship do, and do not appear to be peer reviewed or to hold the same level of rigour. There is also the Canadian Study of Parliament Group, but again, this is not a strictly academic organization.

This is not to say that the study of the House, the Senate and the Crown, outside the Ivory Tower is not worthwhile, as it absolutely is, but rather, to highlight what Smith calls a “disciplinary unconcern” among Canadian political scientists. For Smith, the study of our of national legislative process has “migrated from academic departments.”

As it stands, the academic study of Parliament is dominated by a handful of scholars. In addition to Smith, only C.E.S Franks of Queen’s has published a comprehensive study of Parliament in (relatively) recent years with his 1987 The Parliament of Canada.

Franks shows us that hyper partisanship when it comes to, for example, the emasculation of backbench MPs, is not an invention of Jean Chrétien, as it is sometimes assumed in the media, but a convention that dates back to 1872. Nor does it make any historical sense to speak of the House returning to civility. It has never been civil.

Others with an ongoing interest in this particular subfield of Canadian politics include Donald J. Savoie of the Université de Moncton and David Docherty of Wilfrid Laurier University. There are others, but the paucity of publications dealing with Parliament in Canada’s main political science journal suggests that they are few and far between.

Perhaps current events will spark interest in Canada’s Parliamentary tradition, and our professors will rise to the challenge. It would be a shame if one of Canada’s most important political institutions (if not the most important institution) continues to be under-studied.