Harper's centralization of the democratic process: the litmus test for the next four years
May 3, 2011

Harper's centralization of the democratic process: the litmus test for the next four years

Leaving all policy discussion aside, one of the most disheartening aspects of the last five years of minority government under Harper has been a consistent erosion of the adversarial process in our democracy. The list is long but includes: centralizing media control in government in the PMO opposed to ministries; defunding various watchdog agencies; multiple partisan prorogations; withholding considerable information from parliament; releasing a guide to conservative parliamentary committee leaders on how to obstruct the opposition; extensive use of whipping in parliament; and what many have perceived to be a general disrespect for parliamentary democracy. Of course, some of these have been used by Liberal governments, but there is a degree to which the centralization of power and the clamping down on adversarial debate surpasses previous levels for a minority government and inhibits a robust democracy.

There is an argument - quite likely a specious one - that this centralization and control of the adversarial process was a necessary step to result in effective governance in a minority situation. It is certainly the case that the perceptions many had a half decade ago that a minority government couldn't effectively govern have been laid firmly to rest. I firmly believe that it is not only possible but far more beneficial to govern in a minority situation with a healthy and robust adversarial process both within parliament and outside of it. 

Now that Harper has won a majority, he faces what I believe is to be the defining litmus test of his governance. Namely, as a majority, can he relax the centralization and stiffing of the adversarial and democratic processes that has occurred as a minority or will the grip perhaps strengthen? The Canadian democratic system is already one where the Prime Minister is (relative to other countries) very powerful with a significant degree of centralization. With a whipped majority caucus in parliament, a senate that is historically subservient and conservative regardless, and with supreme court appointments in the next couple years set to give him a majority there too, any concept that there is a need for stiffing the adversarial processes is entirely false. 

This election has seen a polarization of the political spectrum with the right making big gains, the left making big gains with the NDP, and the center and sovereigntists squeezed out.  There is both a great need and a great possibility for a very genuine and meaningful conversation about our future within this context. We have seen the dangers in the American system of hyper-polarization, partisanship and ineffective public discourse, and this can and must be avoided in Canada by an active engagement in the adversarial processes that allows discussion to flourish both within parliament and without. If Stephen Harper can do that, if he can encourage opposed to stifle the debate, then I will disagree with him on certain policies but respect him as a leader. Should the centralization of power and eroding of democratic processes be extended beyond that granted by a majority and the current status quo, our differences will be far more fundamental. 

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Anonymous said...

Good post, really cogent presentation of the main issue about these results and which way we're trending. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post!
Everywhere I look on this subject there is only extremely biased left wingers or right wingers spewing angry garbage.
This is certainly refreshing.

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