The reality is that the U.S. president is not all powerful. Thanks to the American Revolution and the Constitution drafters' desire to avoid allowing power to corrupt, the U.S. Constitution constrains the power of any branch of government. The U.S. government operates under checks and balances. The king (or queen) in the U.K. was, at one time all-powerful, but that was only up until 1215 at Runnymede wherein the king accepted that he was not entitled to run rough-shod over his nobility. Consultation was required, and even the commoners were given a say. Magna Carta was the result. The king was handed his head, but only figuratively. In the 17th century, Charles I exceeded the authorities understood under Magna Carta, shutting down Parliament, embarking on a decade of personal rule. For that, he was handed his head -- literally.
In Canada, at the moment, we face a significant menace to our democracy. The prime minister of Canada (stated as a generic, rather than a personal reality) has far more power than a U.S. president or a U.K. prime minister. Checks and balances have been bypassed in Canada. Even in a minority parliament, the Canadian prime minister has shown himself able to dictate terms, laws, and policy without having a parliamentary debate on such things as violating Kyoto, sending jets to Libya, or leaving one of our nationals in Guantanamo Bay.
Now, following the May 2, 2011 election, the prime minister of Canada, leader of the Conservative Party, has a majority of the seats in the House of Commons -- even though the electorate's popular vote was 60-plus per cent in opposition to his government. The unelected, appointed Senate (the Canadian version of the British House of Lords) has now been stacked with Conservative appointments.
So my wish list under the heading "If I were prime minister" begins with reducing the unhealthy and undemocratic power of the Prime Minister's Office. Over time, starting under former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the office of the prime minister was expanded from a handful of stenographers to an effort to coordinate actions by cabinet members. Fast forward to 2011, and the Prime Minister's Office (or PMO) acts as a control centre over every word spoken by cabinet ministers and senior bureaucrats, while acting to gag government scientists.
If I were prime minister, I would have to start by reducing my own powers. I would trust that the other Members of Parliament elected are competent. I would choose wisely those MPs who have skills and abilities to be members of cabinet and would trust that they can run their own departments, within budget. I would respect the professional civil service and restore morale. (The Canadian civil service is, at the moment, cowed and oppressed by five years of Harper minority and wondering how many blows will fall, and how fast, now that he has his majority).
I would return to the essence of Westminster parliamentary government in which the prime minister is "first among equals."
As prime minister, I would appoint ministers to key portfolios who understand the urgency of the climate crisis. I would replace climate deniers in key agencies appointed by the current prime minister with experts in climate science. I would re-establish the posts of science advisor to the Prime Minister, ambassador for environment, and ambassador for circumpolar affairs, eliminated by the current PM.
Ministers of natural resources, industry, environment, transport and finance would be mandated to develop plans to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs in maximizing energy efficiency in transportation, heating and cooling of buildings and industrial applications, while ramping up renewable energy. The Athabasca oil sands (tar sands) would not receive any new federal permits to expand production, until the energy and water input to each barrel of oil and the pollution created was significantly reduced. The government as a whole would re-commit to meaningful greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets throughout the economy, in close consultation with provincial, territorial and First Nations governments.
If I could be prime minister before COP17 at Durban this December, I would recommit Canada to a second phase under Kyoto and trash the useless "politically-binding" Copenhagen Accord. I would head to Washington DC in hopes of persuading the U.S. president that his government's current approach to international negotiations is fatally flawed, and that the U.S. must lead. The U.S. must find a way to allow the second phase of Kyoto by others, while building meaningful GHG reductions within the legally binding commitments, already ratified by the U.S. Congress under the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change.
If I were prime minister, the government would ensure deficit reduction was on track through returning the corporate tax rate to competitive 2009 levels, repatriating funds from off-shore tax havens, and ending billions in subsidies to fossil fuels, nuclear and bio-technology. I would urge the G-8 to accept the Financial Transaction Tax. Canada would press for better regulation over the risky behaviour of large financial institutions. We need controls to ensure that reckless gambling in the derivatives market can never again risk bringing down the whole world economy.
If I were prime minister, the government would restore the goal of equality for women to the mandate of Status of Women Canada, reverse funding decisions that denied support to advocacy organizations for women's rights, and appoint a knowledgeable person as minister responsible for women. We would make poverty alleviation in Canada and globally a government-wide goal, with a focus on children. We would restore funding to maternal and child health programs that provide access to safe and legal abortions.
Working with provincial, territorial and First Nations governments, my ministers within each area of responsibility would work to fill in the gaps in Canada's policy framework. Canada is the only country in the OECD with no energy policy, no transportation policy, no cultural policy, no housing policy, etc. Once we have an agreed upon set of goals, we can work at all levels of government, with the goal of policy coherence. All levels of government using tax dollars and pulling in the same direction are bound to deliver better results. Key partners in delivering on transport, water conservation, social and affordable housing, and GHG reductions are the municipal governments. As a group they have shown themselves to be light-years ahead of other levels of government and efficient in using scarce resources. Municipalities are indispensable partners.
If I were prime minister, the list of tasks would be long, the sense of urgency unrelenting. For now, I am the Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands and leader of the Green Party of Canada. The list of tasks is long; the sense of urgency unrelenting.