A Real Dictator?

Dictator_Frame1When right-wing Americans accuse Barack Obama of acting like a dictator, we Canadians just laugh. Obama doesn’t posses near the executive powers of our own Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Compared to Harper, Obama is a wuss.

Here, briefly, is how the Canadian parliamentary system works. In Canada in a national election people vote only to elect their local member of parliament. They do not cast a ballot to elect a Prime Minister as such. Following the election, the leader of the party that has the most Members of Parliament (MPs) becomes the governing Prime Minister.

However, a party leader has total control over who is allowed to run in an election. For a candidate’s nomination papers to be accepted, they must bear the leader’s signature. Once elected, they are to remain loyal to their party leader. Votes in the House of Commons, where legislation is passed, are “whipped” to maintain strict party discipline.

Together, the elected members of a party form a “caucus” to determine that party’s policies and strategies. The party leader has complete authority over the caucus, can throw any member out of caucus at will, and unilaterally determines the agenda of the caucus. The system gives the party leader complete dictatorial powers.

question_period.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterboxIf the party in power possesses a majority of MPs in the House of Commons, its legislation will always pass. There will be debate on the floor of the House, but often it will be a sham debate held only for the benefit of the cameras. When a party member rises to ask his or her minister a question, these days it is a prepared question scripted by the party’s communication office. The minister will then rise to answer with a response scripted by that same communications office. When opposition MPs rise to ask a question of a minister, that minister will respond with one of the available scripted responses – even if it does not pertain to the question asked – a practice that has become increasingly common during Question Period under the present Conservative administration led by Stephen Harper. No one is to go off script.

As political columnist Andrew Coyne recently stated at the McKercher Lecture Series at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Law,

This is “an MP’s lot: to do as they are told, speak as they are told, vote as they are told, stand in their place when they are called upon [for a vote] and sit down after, to attack their opponents on cue, and shout their support for the leader, often to the tune of a standing ovation.”

Coyne continued, saying that Canadian Prime Ministers “have amassed powers that are quite without parallel” within any parliamentary system in the world. The Canadian Prime Minister appoints the Senators who give all legislation a “second reading” and can either approve the legislation or amend it and send it back to the House for reconsideration. He appoints the Governor General (the Queen’s representative in Canada) who provides the final signature passing any bill into law. The Prime Minister appoints members of the Supreme Court and all Federal Court judges. He appoints the ministers in his Cabinet, every Deputy Minister, and all parliamentary secretaries and committee chairs. In addition, he appoints the Governor of the Bank of Canada, the heads of all major crown corporations (national public utilities, etc.), and the Chief of the RCMP (the national police force). Even the (supposedly) independent officers of Parliament such as the Auditor General, the Information Commissioner and the Privacy and Ethics Commissioners are all appointed by the Prime Minister. These appointments are not subject to opposition, debate, or review. The decision is solely the Prime Minister’s.

Coyne continued,

And that is just the start. The Prime Minister alone, for example, decides when to dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections. Coupled with the power to declare any vote a matter of confidence, he effectively has a gun to the heads of any member of either side of the Commons who might be tempted to defeat a parliamentary bill.

Mind you, if government MPs are powerless, they are Caesars compare to the opposition in their desperate futile attempt to hold the government to account. Have you watched Question Period? They can’t get their questions answered when they ask them. Indeed, they can’t get the documents they demand. And when they do … they can’t trust the numbers in them. And on those rare, rare occasions when a government is finally being held to account, when it really comes under close scrutiny, it prorogues [suspends Parliament] for months at a time.

We should note that Stephen Harper has pushed the exercise of these powers further than any Prime Minister before him, leading Elizabeth May, the leader of Canada’s Green Party to complain that Stephen Harper isn’t acting as a “real” Canadian. Nevertheless, these powers exist under the Canadian parliamentary system.

By contrast, President Obama possesses none of these executive powers. The American system of checks and balances limits his authority in every of these areas. He will never possess the kind of unilateral executive authority that our own Canadian Prime Minister has.

So take note, Americans. If you want to see a real dictator in action, don’t look to Obama in Washington. Look north of your border to Canada’s Stephen Harper.

Photo credit: Adrian Wild / The Canadian Press

About politspectator
Edward Clayton grew up in the US but has lived in Canada for the last 4 decades. He is a long time peace activist and committed to issues of social justice and good government. He reports on Canadian, American, and global politics from a Canadian perspective.

2 Responses to A Real Dictator?

  1. But the PM’s power is de facto, not de jure. The members of parliament could easily refuse to be whipped. (The whip is a figurative whip). And the PM’s powers are limited by the Governor-General, who could refuse to dissolve parliament, and in theory has the authority to ask anyone to form a government (which by necessity must have the confidence of parliament). It’s not the Canadian system that is broken, just its participants who mistakenly give allegiance to their leader rather than to their constituents.

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