Shouts and Murmurs

“The highest principle of Canadian democracy is that if one wants to be prime minister, one gets one’s mandate from the Canadian people, and not from Quebec separatists.” — Stephen Harper, yesterday in the House of Commons.


There are two vocabularies that Canadians use to talk about their constitution. The first vocabulary describes how our political institutions actually function — the fusion of the legislature and the Crown, the essentially unicameral nature of our government, the party-based system of confidence, the dominance of the executive over parliament, etc. Let us call this the language of reality. 

Then there is the vocabulary that we use when criticizing how things work in Ottawa. This is the vocabulary of the Democratic Deficit, the language that is used by groups like Democracy Watch and Fair Vote Canada, the language that laments the relative powerlessness of MPs, complains about the power of the prime minister, his control over appointments and over the business of the house. It is the vocabulary in which we frame our desire for more checks and balances, for more free votes, for a true bicameral parliament,  and so on. This is, for the most part, the language of journalists. Let us call this the language of complaint. 

The language of complaint serves a few useful functions. It serves as mental check, a way of calibrating our sense of how one prime minister or government is performing and behaving compared with the previous, or with perhaps the potential government in waiting. It also guides the way to possible tweaks or polishings of the system — but let us not call them actual reforms. 

Why? Because for all its popularity, the language of complaint is a constitutional abomination. Whatever reality it has as a description of our system comes from two sources:

First, a brief, very brief, period in the mid-19th century in England, when the party system was still coalescing and the Crown had not asserted itself as the dominant entity in the Commons. Things were fluid, MPs had a lot of power, relatively speaking, and the Crown had to build coalitions as needed to keep things going. 

Students of parliament still romanticize that time — read the last chapter of Christopher Moore’s otherwise excellent 1867 for an egregious example — but parliament could not, should not, function according to the norms built into the language of complaint. 

Second, we remain heavily influenced by the American system. The language of complaint is shot through with assumptions and norms that rest on an American view of checks and balances, bicameralism, and presidentialism. In many ways, this is far more pernicious than 19th century romanticism, because at least the romantics understand, dimly, how parliament actually works. The Americanists, on the other hand, don’t understand parliament, and so their complaints are underwritten by an unwarranted sense that the working of Canadian system is actually illegitimate. 

Take, for example, the current coalition agreement that has been set up by the Libs and NDP and the tacit support of the Bloc. I don’t like it, but there is nothing remotely unconstitutional about it. It is thoroughly legitimate. Canadians did not vote for Stephane Dion, no. But we did not vote for Stephen Harper either. We elected a parliament, which will support who it will support. 

Under our constitution, neither the people nor the prime minister even exist, there is only parliament. 

It is bad enough that most of the complainers out there don’t get it. Stephen Harper knows better, and chooses to pretend otherwise.