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DONNER PRIZE FINALIST: Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government

The response by some to the most recent episodes of abuses and failings of our parliamentary democracy has been to vilify Prime Minister Harper, suggesting that if we had a more accommodating leader or could enact some sort of cultural change, the problems would simply vanish. We reject this outright. Harper is far from the only leader to abuse power.

Does the prime minister wield too much power? Is our skilled immigration policy in need of major reform? What role do museums play in Canadian society? Could Healthy Living Vouchers help in the battle against obesity? These are the questions posed by the four finalists competing for the $50,000 2011/2012 Donner Prize, the award for best public policy book by a Canadian. The winner will be announced on Tuesday, May 1. We will post excerpts from each of the finalists in advance of the prize, exclusively for Huffpost readers. Today's excerpt is from Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government, by Peter Aucoin, Mark D. Jarvis and Lori Turnbull. In this book, which has been shortlisted for both the Donner Book Prize and the Donald Smiley Prize, the authors argue that "the lack of a shared basic understanding of the 'unwritten rules' of the Canadian constitution has undermined the functioning of responsible government." Responsible government, which was fought for and won more than 160 years ago in the decades prior to Confederation, is the principle upon which Canadian democracy was founded. This principle maintains that the executive must be accountable to the people's elected representatives in Parliament. Today, that achievement is slipping away.

BY THE LATE 1990s and early 2000s, many Canadians had come to lament how the prime ministers of single-party majority governments seemed able to undermine parliamentary democracy. By the middle of the last decade, as a prolonged period of minority government set in, many expected that this change would serve as an effective antidote for the perceived authoritarian rule that had come to be associated with majorities.

Over the course of seven years (2004 to 2011) that saw the minority governments of prime ministers Paul Martin and then Stephen Harper, it became crystal clear that this expectation was far too optimistic. Most, if not all, would agree that minority government has failed to constrain the power of prime ministers over Parliament. If anything, minority government only intensified the degree to which prime ministers were able to, and did, abuse power to undermine Canadian parliamentary democracy. In large measure, this was possible because of the erosion of the conventions meant to guide the practice of responsible government.

There are many reasons for this erosion, including a lack of care and attention from academic experts, the media, pundits, and politicians in the preservation of a common understanding of the meaning and requirements of the unwritten Canadian constitution. What is clear is that something must be done to address this situation. While the problems did not start in December 2008, the prorogation that occurred then made it clear that Canada has a crisis of parliamentary democracy afoot, even if the effects of that crisis are not always plainly evident. Unfortunately, there is little reason for optimism, given that we have seemed content to allow the confusion and disagreement over the King - Byng affair to fester for more than 85 years.

This book is a modest response to this state of affairs. It is an attempt to document the resulting abuses and failings of differing parts of the system, and to address them. But perhaps the most important purpose of this book is to argue for the need for formal reforms that might address the eroding Canadian constitution.

The response by some to the most recent episodes of this deterioration has been to vilify Prime Minister Harper, suggesting that if we had a more accommodating leader or could enact some sort of cultural change, the problems would simply vanish. We reject this outright. While it's notable that the National Post has also acknowledged (in a May 4, 2011 editorial) that there is a problem, in this book we demonstrate that Harper is far from the only leader to abuse power in this regard. Concrete change is required. Rather than attempt to remake the Canadian system as a republic, we propose reforms aimed at reinvigor¬ating responsible government and democratizing the Canadian constitution.


The Canadian system of parliamentary government faces a fundamental problem that has been allowed to undermine Canadian democracy. The prime minister wields too much power over the operations of the House of Commons. The House of Commons is the parliamentary assembly of the people's elected representatives, the pre-eminent democratic institution of representative government. Too much power in the hands of a prime minister over the House of Commons in a parliamentary democracy is always a problem. Unconstrained power in any form of government invariably leads to the abuse of power. When power is abused, democracy is diminished.

The potential for unconstrained prime ministerial power has always been a risk inherent in parliamentary democracies, like Canada's, that are based on the British, or Westminster model. The prime minister occupies a crucial position in this structure. The prime minister is both the political head of the executive government and the leader of the governing party in the House of Commons. As the political head of the government, the prime minister advises the governor general to summon Parliament after an election, to prorogue Parliament for a period of time, and to dissolve Parliament in advance of an election. These decisions are not subject to the approval or consent of the House of Commons. They are separate executive powers. At the same time, the prime minister and his or her government, in order to retain office, must maintain the confidence of a majority of the members of Parliament -- the people's elected representatives in the House of Commons. The tenure of the prime minister, as well as the life of the government, is thus subject to the control of the House of Commons. In this way, the constitutional system of parliamentary government is democratic.


Unconstrained prime ministerial power undermines the democratic spirit of the Canadian constitution of parliamentary government as institutionalized by the conventions of responsible government. As Paul Thomas has stated, "Prime Ministers who violate the spirit of the constitution may not understand its requirements or are prepared to violate the norms of behavior it prescribes because of their obsession with winning and holding power. There is a critical issue of character with leaders who are prepared to ignore or violate the rules of the game."

These conventions are meant to govern how the democratic elements of the constitution should operate. The logic here is that MPs in the House of Commons are the people's directly elected representatives. This makes the system democratic: the people have the ultimate control. But they have this control only insofar as MPs are able to constrain the prime minister and government.

The problems that are undermining Canadian democracy demand reform. The problem is not the result of any one governing party. Nor is it the consequence of minority government; majority government, in many ways, enhances the democracy problem even if it gives it a façade of stability or, worse, gives it the veneer of legitimacy. The reforms we propose in this book seek to establish firm, clear rules for the practices governing confidence and the summoning, prorogation, and dissolution of Parliament, around which a consensus could build among politicians, analysts, and the public. These rules would constrain the power of prime ministers to silence the House in order to protect their partisan interests. We also seek to advance proposals that would reduce the power of the prime minister and government to dominate parliamentary structures and processes merely to serve their partisan interests.

While it is neither possible nor desirable to prescribe rules for every situation, a complete absence of rules leaves the integrity of the system vulnerable to abuse.

This book was also co-authored by the late Peter Aucoin was Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Public Administration at Dalhousie University.

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