Bruce Campion, Joanna Smith, The Toronto Star
May 29, 2008 04:30 AM
As control centralizes with PM and advisers, MPs become pawns, academic writes
OTTAWA—When Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood in Parliament and introduced a bombshell motion to formally recognize the QuÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â©bÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â©cois as a nation within Canada, he surprised not just the country but his own cabinet minister ostensibly in charge of the file.
Michael Chong, intergovernmental affairs minister at the time, says Harper never consulted him about the bold move — made in November 2006 — even though he was responsible for Ottawa’s relations with the provinces.
A few days later, Chong resigned his post, saying he disagreed with the intent of the motion.
Academic and author Donald Savoie cites that incident as one example of the growing concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office — at the expense of MPs, bureaucrats, cabinet ministers and ultimately the public.
He argues that Canada has evolved into a court-style government, where the prime minister sits as “king” and has a “court” of select senior ministers, mandarins and lobbyists that rule the nation. Savoie says Parliament has been reduced to a bit player and cabinet ministers are now mere pawns.
“An instinct for political survival … explains why prime ministers have sought to control things from the centre,” Savoie writes in his new book Court Government and the Collapse of Accountability.
“Problems are less likely to surface if the centre keeps a tight rein on things,” he writes. “Court government suits prime ministers and their courtiers because it enables them to get things done.”
As the size of the federal government has grown and media scrutiny increased, prime ministers have increasingly sought to centralize power to ensure their priorities become a reality. “Prime ministers, out of frustration, have said `We’ve got to drive the agenda’ so they’ve centralized a lot of the power to get things done,” Savoie said.
It’s a pattern that dates back to the days of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. But he admits that Harper, with his penchant for tight control over policy and messaging, has “upped the ante. “Clearly Harper has continued in that trend, if not more so,” said Savoie, a political scientist at l’UniversitÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â© de Moncton.
“Who would pretend today … that we have a minister of foreign affairs that actually runs the department? … It’s the Prime Minister’s department. The Prime Minister makes any government department his department at will,” he said.