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The Prime Minister: The Americanization of Canadian Politics

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The following is an excerpt from MP Brent Rathgeber's book, "Irresponsible Government: The Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada."

The Canadian and American systems of government are very different. Although both, at least theoretically, are functioning democracies, the American Revolutionary Framers rejected the Westminster Parliament in favour of a republic based on a formal separation of powers. Whereas no member of the U.S. Congress can serve in the executive (both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had to resign Senate seats in 2008), it is almost unheard of for a Minister of the Crown not to be a member of the legislative branch.

Responsible Government ensures that the executive cabinet is comprised of, but distinguishable from, elected legislators. This fusion of the roles ensures a very powerful and dominant position in the job of Canadian prime minister.

A prime minister is both the head of the executive government and his party's chief spokesperson in the legislature. Given his predominant position in both the executive and legislative branches, he has no equal in a congressional system based on a separation of powers.

A prime minister, supported by a caucus that holds a majority of seats in the House of Commons, is, if he chooses to be, an elected dictator for the duration of that parliament. His Government's agenda will find no opposition in the House of Commons.

The office of the prime minister is all important and dwarfs the importance of all supportive and secondary offices and positions. The late Jim Travers in an excellent essay penned: "It is his clear and credible view that between elections, prime ministers now operate in the omnipotent manner of kings. Surrounded by subservient cabinet barons, fawning unelected courtiers and answerable to no one, they manage the affairs of state more or less as they please."

Undoubtedly, the best predictor of the results in any constituency election is the popularity and effectiveness of the campaign of the leader under whose banner the candidate is running. Elections are determined largely on voters' impressions of national leaders gleaned from national media sources. Many pundits and strategists believe that over 90 per cent of the electorate make their voting decision based on some combination of their impression of the party and the party leader.

Our elections are so leader-centric that most Canadians believe they elect directly their prime ministers and premiers. Of course, we do not; each of us elect a member of parliament and a Member of the Legislative Assembly. It is the support which the respective party leaders enjoy amongst those legislators that will ultimately determine who has the confidence of the House and therefore can serve as First Minister.

Meanwhile, MPs, who should understand that the prime minister is chosen based on the support they command in the House, play right into the Americanization of our polity by becoming "invisible." Compliant and loyal members of parliament are invisible in the sense that they become indistinguishable from their party and their party leadership.

It is perhaps because many Canadians erroneously believe that they directly elect the prime minister that they are so tolerant of the consolidation of near ultimate power inside that office. But in a functional democracy, we would not witness such an increasing concentration of power and control. Nor should we tolerate such limited accountability or lack of transparency.

In the last half century, successive prime ministers have gradually, but inexorably, transferred and consolidated power in the "center." They have freed themselves from the restraints that once bound them to the voters, parliament, cabinet and even the political party. All institutional checks on prime ministerial power are compromised, strained and breaking, if not broken.

Margaret Thatcher was deposed by her own caucus and twice in the last four years, the Australia Labour Party has rejected a leader (and prime minister) and then rejected the replacement based on the will of the caucus.

This is normal; this is parliamentary democracy, where the leader leads the caucus but does not dominate it. The aforementioned Westminster democracies, which have not fallen prey to creeping presidentialism, are thought to be much more functional by academics and pundits who have studied the comparative systems.

Libertarians believe that the greatest threat to freedom and rights is the over concentration of power. A functional democracy requires working checks and balances. Even a benevolent leader requires checks on his or her power. Every system benefits from constructive checks and balances. Sadly, a Canadian prime minister, operating in a majority setting, will find very few constraints on his or her authority.

Some have referred to this concept as the Presidentializing of Canadian Politics. However, the internal power and influence enjoyed by a Canadian Prime Minister would be the envy of any U.S. Commander in Chief.

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