The Unfriendly Dictatorship

Mar 15, 2022 | Freedom Forum

The Canadian Prime Minister and The Case for An Immediate Reduction of Power

Many Canadians still feel shaken by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act. “I’m still not over it!” a friend expressed to me the other day. “I cannot believe our freedoms are so fragile.”

I have already called for stronger safeguards to protect freedom, including a Royal Commission to review the government’s handling of the pandemic. As we continue to witness the repercussions of the Prime Minister’s actions, I believe it is time to add another topic to the review table: a re-evaluation of the powers wielded by the Office of Prime Minister.

In 2001, journalist Jeffrey Simpson published The Friendly Dictatorship (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2001). The context was Jean Chrétien’s reign as Canadian prime minister. Chrétien won three majority governments, inspiring Simpson’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek image of the Prime Minister as a benevolent dictator. Simpson focused his critique of prime ministerial power on the parliamentary system, the political parties, and the electorate. The parliamentary system, in Simpson’s view, is dominated by the prime minister. Any constraints, such as needing the confidence of the House of Commons, are mere “paper tigers.” According to Simpson, “the prime minister is the Sun King around whom all revolves and to whom all must pay varying forms of tribute” (p. 4).

In Simpson’s mind, the Canadian prime minister is more powerful than any other democratically elected leader in the world. The U.S. government is checked by Congress and the judiciary; Australia’s party system is more powerful than Canada’s, and so on.

Simpson makes a great point. Consider the fact that all roads of Canadian officialdom lead to the Office of the Prime Minister (PMO). All ambassadors, superior court judges, heads of federal agencies like the Bank of Canada, clerks of the Privy Council, deputy ministers, cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries, committee chairs, Senators, and the Governor General are appointed or highly influenced by the PMO. The PMO controls the election date and the messaging of the government to the media. That is some office!

However, it’s worth noting that Ian Brodie takes a different view. Chief of Staff for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Brodie wrote At The Centre of Government: The Prime Minister and the Limits on Political Power (Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018). He suggests that while it is common for political scientists and journalists to talk about the excessive powers of the Prime Minister, these criticisms do not, in his view, stand up to scrutiny.

Brodie argues that there is a “confirmation bias” that acts as a blinker. In other words, people tend to find evidence that supports their pre-existing beliefs or biases. Those who share the Prime Minister’s views are less likely to observe problems, while political opponents are more likely to perceive the role as holding too much power.

Brodie points out that power within the executive shifts over time, as was evident with the toppling of Jean Chrétien in 2004. He does admit, “[t]here is much to be said for the view that the prime minister is a dictator” (p. 11). Yet, although the role of prime minister is inherently powerful, he maintains that day-to-day activities require delegation to cabinet ministers and to the civil service. Only four areas of governing require the prime minister’s direct involvement: fiscal policy, foreign relations, relations with the provinces, “and the management of the government’s business before Parliament” (p. 28).

Brodie defends his argument by referring to his experience with Stephen Harper. Based on his account, it seems plausible that he understates the power of the office because he observed a prime minister whose personality and situation were more restrained. When he witnessed Harper in action, he saw a leader subject to a lot of practical realities. Harper himself explained that “We offset the power we grant somebody by the degree of scrutiny we put them under.”[1]

Herein lies the issue. The PMO is indisputably the single most powerful office in the land. How that power is used is largely dependent upon the office-holder. His or her personality, virtues (or lack thereof), character, experience, intent, vision, and so forth, determine how the office will be conducted.

The office is essentially unregulated. There are no statutes or rules, only convention. In fact, while the Constitution outlines the various branches of government, it says nothing about the position of prime minister. That leaves the role entirely up to tradition.

Since there are no explicit constitutional obligations, the office holder can make the office into his or her own image. The person will determine whether the office will be that of a “friendly” or “unfriendly” dictatorship.

In their book, Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government (2012) Peter Aucoin, Mark D. Jarvis and Lori Turnbull suggest that our system has “left Canadian prime ministers in a position more akin to historical monarchs.”

When Britain faced overbearing monarchs, the nobility resisted and forced the king to give up power. This is what happened eight hundred years ago, after King John had seized property, increased taxes, and even imprisoned the family members of those he disliked. Eventually, the barons decided King John had so abused his powers that he was forced to relinquish some authority or be removed from the throne.

On June 15, 1215, John set his seal to a document known as Magna Carta. The great significance of this document was the affirmation that everyone had equal protection under the law and that no one – including the King himself – was above the law.[2] The principles of the Magna Carta came to form the basis of English common law, which still informs Canadian law to this day.

Seen in light of this heritage of freedom and the rule of law, the recent actions of Prime Minister Trudeau – who imprisoned political opponents, seized bank accounts and used mounted police to end a peaceful protest – look more like the excesses of an absolutist King John than a democratically elected representative of the people. (A provocative political cartoon by Bob Moran captures this impression). Mr. Trudeau’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act on February 14, 2022, is cause enough for us to demand a check on prime ministerial power, whether we sympathize with his perspective or not.

Despite Trudeau’s patently false claims that the truckers were violent extremists, there was no emergency as legislatively defined. He did not meet the stringent criteria required to invoke the Act. The simple fact that he did not take such drastic measures in response to other protests or blockades clearly shows that invoking the Act was not consistent with the rule of law. It was an ideological move designed to punish those who dared to challenge his views.

Political disagreement is not reason enough to declare an emergency that strips Canadians of their rights, even temporarily. The Prime Minister has broken the trust of a trusting society, and no amount of photo ops with her Majesty the Queen will remove the stain of that breach.

It’s true that the Liberals have the ideological support of an influential segment of society. Many university faculties have embraced the same social and environmental views that Trudeau expresses. The legacy media also tends to be in alignment with his perspective.

Yet the majority of Canadians do not accept the Prime Minister’s “progressive” positions.[3] As represented by the truckers with their “unacceptable views,” these are the same Canadians who have borne the brunt of the Prime Minister’s abuse of power.

Those who agree with this prime minister’s ideology may not see any need for a check on his authority. Just as he himself applauded the efficiencies of dictatorial China, his admirers may praise his ability to squelch opposition and enforce his will on the people. However, they “may wish their cake dough” (as my Newfoundland grandmother use to say) when a new prime ministerial monarch with a different ideology takes the throne.

Former Prime Minister Harper recently observed, “[w]e don’t have cults of personality in democratic countries. That is one of the hallmarks of an undemocratic society – when a leader is beyond criticism, when a leader embodies the state, when a leader becomes somebody that you actually have to worship, for lack of a better term.”[4]

It is past time for our collective will to set down our own King John on the Runnymede meadow.


[1] See “Stephen Harper, 22nd Prime Minister of Canada” (February 28, 2018) YouTube, online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXXY1e0waEw&t=587s at 35:29. Harper added that “I could have wielded a lot more power. I think I could probably still easily be leader of my party if I wanted to. … But that was not my goal. My goal in political life, I’m driven by my political conservatism. … I was determined to establish an institutional organization that would outlive me and would not need me down the road. So, I did things very different than if I simply wanted to amass power at all costs.”

[2] Clause 39 of the Magna Carta reads “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.”

[3] Trudeau’s minority government received only 5.56 million votes in the 2021 election. 80% of eligible voters either cast their ballot for a different party or chose not to vote at all. See Elections Canada: https://www.elections.ca/enr/help/national_e.htm

[4] Harper (2018) YouTubehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXXY1e0waEw&t=587s at 35:29.

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