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Democracy

"A Canadian Prime Minister can appoint judges, ratify treaties, send Canadian men and women into war, negotiate trade agreements, make patronage appointments, set the date of elections to suit his or her political advantage, determine when Parliament will be prorogued, when it will be recalled, and appoint the most senior public servants, all without reference to the MPs Canadians have elected to represent them. This is a parliamentary dictatorship and it must be brought to an end." - Bill Blakie, Member of Parliament (NDP)

Published: October 6, 2006
By J. Wheelwright


Is Canada a democracy? Is the United States of America a democracy? Most people, when faced with these questions, would answer most assertively "Yes!" to both. After all, both countries hold free elections, are respectful of human rights and uphold many civil liberties that are codified in documents such as the Bill of Rights or the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

However, technically speaking, the correct answer for both questions is "No". Canada is not a democracy in the strictest sense of the word, but rather can be aptly described as a Constitutional Monarchy. The highest ranking official in government is not an elected representative, not even a Canadian (residing in or born in), but rather an un-elected British monarch. The United States does have an elected head of state, yet it too, is not a democracy in strictest sense of the word. Rather, the US can best be designated as a Republic. Both countries are democratic in that the will of the people is exercised by elected officials. However, in examining the question of democracy in the modern sense of the word, one must look beyond symbolic sovereign rulers and traditional definitions and examine the underlying foundations on which the countries rest.

In Canada, the Monarchy has full executive powers, but does not wield them. Then who does? For all practical purposes the answer is the Prime Minister of Canada. The Prime Minister (PM), while not directly elected by the people in national elections, is traditionally an elected representative of the party that has the most seats in the House of Commons. Besides being able to preside as an un-elected official in the Senate (this has happened twice in Canada's history), the appointed leader has a host of unilateral powers, some of which include the authority:

  1. To appoint the Governor General of Canada (through whom the PM technically exercises most of his/her powers, some of which are listed below);
  2. To appoint Senators to the Canadian Senate;
  3. To appoint Supreme Court justices and other federal justices;
  4. To appoint all members of the Cabinet;
  5. To appoint the entire board of the Bank of Canada;
  6. To appoint the heads of the military, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and other government agencies;
  7. To appoint CEO's and Chairs of crown corporations such as CBC;
  8. To dissolve Parliament and choose the time of the next federal election (within a 5 year limit);
  9. To run for re-election indefinitely (no term limits);
  10. To remove Members of Parliament (MPs) from the ruling party's caucus;
  11. To deny any MP the right to participate in parliamentary debate or run for re-election;
  12. To dismiss individuals or groups of representatives from serving in Parliament;
  13. To ratify treaties; and
  14. To declare war.


It should be noted that the final four powers, which are called "prerogative powers", are rarely used by a Prime Minister; primarily because they have not proven politically expedient, and would be unpopular if used. All appointments made by the Prime Minister are at his/her sole discretion. While the United States has confirmation hearings for all presidential appointments, there are no confirmation hearings for any appointments including cabinet members, Supreme Court Justices and Senators in Canada. Arguably, the Prime Minister is one of the most powerful elected leaders of any democratic nation. The checks in the Canadian system are limited to either outright revolt within the Prime Minister's party, an action that has never taken place in Canada, or refusal by the Governor General to assent to an action proposed by the Prime Minister. This is a doubtful course of action since the Governor General is appointed "on the advice of", which is to say, effectively appointed directly by the Prime Minister. To quote from former Prime Minister Chrétien's website:

"The Prime Minister used to be described as 'the first among equals' in the cabinet, or as 'a moon among minor stars'. This is no longer so. He (she) is now incomparably more powerful than any colleague. The Prime Minister chooses the ministers in the first place, and can also ask any of them to resign; if the minister refuses, the Prime Minister can advise the Governor General to remove that minister and the advice would invariably be followed. Cabinet decisions do not necessarily go by majority vote. A strong prime minister, having listened to everyone's opinion, may simply announce that his (her) view is the policy of the government, even if most, or all, the other ministers are opposed. Unless the dissenting ministers are prepared to resign, they must bow to the decision."

In many ways, the absolute powers that Kings and Queens of yore once had have merely been passed along to Prime Ministers of today. A sampling of the Prime Minister's far-reaching powers can be found by looking at the Black v. Chrétien (September 12, 2000) case, in which the Prime Minister used the Crown's prerogative powers to interfere with the appointment of Conrad Black to the British House of Lords. The Prime Minister cited a resolution signed in 1919 that requested the King of England refrain from giving honorary titles to any of the King's Canadian subjects as the basis for his objection. Mr. Black stated for the record that he felt the objection to be an abuse of prime ministerial power, which was being exercised because of a personal vendetta directed towards himself by the Prime Minister, and due to the frequent appearance of unfavorable commentary in the National Post. However, the judge concluded that "[i]t is [the Prime Minister's] prerogative, non-reviewable in court, to give advice and express opinions on honours and foreign affairs.. His actions and his reasons for giving that advice or expressing those opinions are not justiciable". Essentially declaring that the Crown's powers cannot be questioned by any court of law. As such, he could not rule on the question of abuse of power, since the judiciary cannot review motivation behind or scope of royal prerogative. Indeed, Parliament itself cannot even debate any changes to the Crown's power without the Crown's consent.

Both the Prime Minister and the President have two legislative branches with which they must contend with. However, by default the Prime Minister controls the House of Commons in a majority government situation, and in modern days simply does not have to be concerned with the appointed Senate. Although the Senate can amend and debate bills brought to it by the House of Commons, and even introduce bills of its own, it rarely, if ever, votes against a bill passed in the House. If Canadian Senators were to start to "rock the boat", the public might well raise an eyebrow to what is widely perceived as illegitimate powers given to elderly friends of the Prime Minister. Senators receive in excess of $100,000 salaries plus extravagant pensions upon retirement. Of course, if the Senate does block legislation, the Prime Minister has the power to temporarily add 8 additional seats in the Senate (s. 26), as Brian Mulroney did to pass the Goods & Services Tax (GST).

Another major factor weakening democracy in Canada's parliamentary system is strict party discipline. A Prime Minister, by use of the party's Whip, can ensure members within his party vote along party lines. A carrot and stick approach is often used, the carrot being a much sought after cabinet position with all its added stature and monetary benefits, and the stick being dismissal from the party (an example being John Nunziata). Indeed, in this leader-centered political age, the Prime Minister will often remind members of his/her caucus that it is the his/her visage that got them their position in the first place. This all results in a "hive mind" mentality where MPs rarely vote against their own party, even if they feel it is not in the best interest of their constituents. Prime Minister Trudeau was once quoted as referring to his backbenchers (MPs not part of the cabinet) as "trained seals" and "nobodies when they are 50 yards away from the House of Commons."

By contrast, US congressmen often vote against their own party and/or President. For example, when the House of Representatives was asked to vote on the Farm Security Act of 2001; 151 Republicans, 139 Democrats, and 1 Independent voted in favor; 58 Republicans, 61 Democrats, and 1 Independent voted against. When the Parliament of Canada voted on the Farm Credit Corporation Act; 150 Liberals, 4 Alliance, 0 Bloc Quebecois, 9 Conservatives, and 9 New Democrats voted in favor; 0 Liberals, 39 Alliance, 32 Bloc Quebecois, 0 Conservatives, and 0 New Democrats voted against. The results are similar for virtually every bit of legislation passed in the United States and Canada respectively. Although Canadians often hear from the US media of partisan politics, it does not even compare to the rigid party politics in Canada. It should be noted that the Canadian Alliance was the one and only Canadian party that allows "free votes" for its own party members.

In Canada, a ruling majority government allows the opposition to debate a piece of legislation, and even ask questions during a question period. However, increasingly closure and time allocation votes are used to silence the opposition and push legislation through. Furthermore, because of strict party discipline, attempting to convince members in other parties to vote against their own party is completely futile. In contrast, one need only watch a session of Congress on C-SPAN to see how US congressmen go to great lengths to persuade and convince, by use of charts, graphs, statistics and supporting information, other congressmen to vote with them despite their political affiliation, and, successfully do so in many instances. This sort of lobbying is rarely, if ever, seen in Parliament. More often, the members of the opposition parties in the House of Commons use their time to attempt to embarrass the ruling party in the hope that the media will show it to the public rather than using the time to attempt to gain support from other members. Tactics employed by members are ones like booing, yelling and making slanderous accusations. Although autocratic rule may not be felt outside Parliament, it is surely exercised within the halls of Parliament Hill. As Prime Minister Stephen Harper once said:

"The problem with Parliament is that it has ceased to be a legislative body. It provides a public forum for venting reaction or venting ideas, but doesn't have much to do with governing the country."

Advocates of the parliamentary system often state that this system of government is more efficient by allowing a government to pass legislation without "political wrangling". However, it may be argued that democracy is not designed for efficiency, but for accountability. If efficiency were a primary goal of government, we could all live under "efficient" dictatorships, which exercised law by instant fiat instead of requiring months of debate. Gridlock can actually be a desirable thing for it limits the powers of any one branch of government and provides a harness for what otherwise would be unchecked power run rampant. Additionally, are not discussion, debate and lobbying desirable parts of a successful democratic system? Is not a thriving government one that must bend and shape policy so that the majority of the representatives, acting as individual representatives, believe in it? Yes, it is true that US Presidents will often blame the Congress for not passing a law that they promised to enact. However, promises are broken in any system. For example, over a decade ago, Jean Chrétien, who was at that point leader of the opposition, promised that once in power he would both eliminate the GST and renegotiate NAFTA. In 1993, he was given a majority government as a result of having made the above stated as well as many other "promises". In 2003, after a full ten years of being Prime Minister, he stepped down holding a majority in Government, and yet he left both of the previously mentioned promises unfulfilled.

The United States was formed with a system of checks and balances and separation of powers. Therefore, the President of the United States has a more limited power within the US system than the Canadian Prime Minister has within the Canadian system. The President nominates Supreme Court Justices, and all other federal judges, Cabinet members, and signs treaties. However, the US Senate must approve all of these decisions. This is why it is not uncommon to see members of opposing parties in administration cabinet positions, as is the case for Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, a Democrat in the Bush administration.

The President often faces either a House or a Senate that has a majority of the opposing party, and even when both are of the same party, Congress almost never bows unconditionally to the President's will. Republican President George Bush Sr. faced not only a critical Democrat majority in Congress in the early 90s, but also had to deal with a majority of Republican congressmen who did not back him in passing deficit and tax legislation. As of 2003, President George W. Bush has both a Republican Senate and House, yet, he too cannot pass any legislation he wishes without worry. So-called "moderate Republicans" have already joined with Democrats to stop initiatives like the Bush tax cut, oil drilling in Alaska, and increased logging in national forests. Presidents do have powers to make important decisions both domestically and abroad. However, the "power of the purse" lies in Congress, and any action can significantly be hindered, if not outright halted, by a Congress that refuses to fund a Presidential initiative. The same is true in Canada. However, as has been discussed before, strict party discipline has prevented any such similar actions in Canada. In addition, the Canadian Prime Minister has shifted much government responsibility over to committees. Committee appointment is yet another "carrot" that is regularly used by the Prime Minister to secure member support. Finally, a President who attempts to overstep his bounds can be impeached and thrown out of office by the Congress. Examples of this course of action include the proposed impeachment of Presidents Johnson, Clinton and Nixon. Impeachment, while rarely used, is primarily useful as a deterrent, as well as a tool to force action or draw attention. President Clinton was stained and embarrassed by impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky affair, but Prime Minister Chrétien had no such worry in regards to the Grand-Mère affair. The only internal check in the Canadian system is an ethics counselor appointed by none other than the Prime Minister himself.

So, while the US seems to have learned from the pitfalls of Westminster system, with its appropriate checks and balances, Canada has fallen further into a centralization of power, so much so, that now it is described by some as a Prime Ministerial Dictatorship. In fact, even a British Prime Minister is considerably less powerful than his Canadian counterpart, partly because party discipline has weakened in the UK, but also because the British government is immensely larger, and thus, most parliamentarians know they will never receive a cabinet position, which effectively nullifies the power of this particular "carrot".

For a brief comparison of the differences between the two systems, consider the following table.

Canada

United States

Executive

Monarch - The Monarchy is hereditary.

Governor General - Appointed by the Prime Minister (acting in the name of the Monarch).

Prime Minister - Regionally elected leader of the ruling party in the House of Commons.

Cabinet - Appointed by the Prime Minister*.

President - Nationally elected by a college of representatives who are elected directly from each state.

Cabinet - Appointed by the President, confirmed by the Senate.

Legislative

House of Commons - 308 MPs elected by plurality vote.

Senate - 105 Senators (unequally distributed among Provinces and Territories) appointed by the Prime Minister*.

House of Representatives - 435 Congressmen elected by plurality vote.

Senate - 100 Senators (each State given 2 seats) elected by plurality vote.

Judicial

Supreme Court - 9 justices appointed by the Prime Minister*. Term ending at 75 years of age. May be removed by the Prime Minister* on address of Parliament.

All other Federal Judges are appointed and removed through the same processes.

Supreme Court - 9 justices appointed by the President, confirmed by the Senate. Life term. May be impeached by Congress.

All other Federal Judges are appointed and removed through the same processes.

Elections

No elections for Monarch, Governor General, or Senators. MP elections held on date of Prime Minister's choosing, within a 5 year limit*.

Fixed elections held every second year in November. Every 2 years for House Reps, 4 years for Presidents, and 6 years for Senators staggered so that one third of the seats are up for election every 2 years.

Checks on Powers

The Crown's authority is absolute and unreviewable by any other body.

Prime Minister can be overruled by Monarch or his/her appointed Governor General. Members of ruling party can choose new Prime Minister at any time.

Parliamentary legislation must be passed by both houses of Parliament and can be vetoed by Governor General or declared unconstitutional by Supreme Court. Parliamentarians can be removed by the Crown. Parliament can put up a motion of non-confidence to bring down the government.

Supreme Court Justices can be removed by the Prime Minister* on address of Parliament. Prime Minister has power to appoint Justices.

Constitution can be amended with majority of both houses of Parliament, approval of seven provinces (or more) which represent greater than fifty percent of the population, and consent by the Crown.

President can be impeached by Congress. Presidential veto can be overruled by two-thirds majority vote in both houses of Congress. Presidential acts can be declared unconstitutional by Supreme Court. Presidential nominees or treaties can be refused by the Senate.

Congressional legislation must be passed by both houses of Congress and can be vetoed by President or declared unconstitutional by Supreme Court. Congressmen can be removed by two-thirds majority vote in respective houses of Congress.

Supreme Court Justices can be impeached by Congress. President has power to appoint Justices on confirmation of Senate.

Constitution can be amended with two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress and approval of three-quarters of the States, or through a Constitutional Convention.

*acting in the name of Governor General


The US model is not without its critics, however. While some would argue that it has managed to rectify many of the apparent flaws in the British model, others would argue that, along with other inherited flaws, it has given birth to its own set of flaws. One issue that is brought up quite often now, but not much thought of for many years before, is the electoral college.

The electoral college is a system in which each State in the US gets a number of votes for President based upon the total number of Senators plus the Members of the House of Representatives that State has. Since every State has two Senators and at least one congressman, all states, including the District of Columbia, have at least three electoral votes. Whichever Presidential candidate wins the most votes in a particular State gets all of the electoral votes of that State. Any one desiring more detailed explanations of the US Electoral College may read this paper written by William C. Kimberling. Basically, the electoral college is a method of choosing the President not by popular vote alone, but by a system which respects the regionalism of the country as a whole. After all, the US is a collection of different States, not one giant unitary country. The impact of this system is that presidential candidates must garner support distributed throughout the entire nation, not just in highly populated areas (see US 2000 election county-by-county map). Nevertheless, some argue that one vote should count as one vote no matter which part of the country it comes from, and a popular vote for President is the best method in which to represent the citizenry. Furthermore, the electoral college is sometimes criticized because if a presidential nominee does not receive over 50% of the electoral votes then the decision-making eventually falls on the House of Representatives. This has not happened in over a century; however, many USAmericans would be unhappy with such a scenario, as was the case in the two historical instances that it did occur. Although that contingency would be seen by many as "undemocratic" in the US, a Canadian Prime Minister is indirectly elected as national leader in every Canadian election.

In fact, Canadian elections may be compared to US Presidential elections because, just as votes for electors decide who will be President, votes for Members of Parliament decide who will be the Prime Minister. However, a US elector's duty is completed once he/she casts a vote for the candidate the people wish to be elected; an MP in the governing party must serve the Prime Minister throughout the entire session of Parliament. As the table below illustrates the above dynamic can result in preventing the person who receives the most votes from becoming Prime Minister just as in the 2000 presidential election, the candidate who gains the majority of the popular vote does not always win.

1979 Parliamentary Election Results

Seats

% Popular Vote

Progressive Conservative

136

35.9%

Liberal

114

40.1%

New Democratic

26

17.9%

Social Credit

6

4.6%

Other

0

1.5%


Indeed, direct popular votes for Presidents and Prime Ministers are not common around the world. However, in both Canada and the United States almost every winner of the election has received a plurality of the popular vote with only a few exceptions in over 200 years. The difference between the two systems are that in United States voters go to the polls and decide on who will be their leader and who will be their representatives in Congress with separate votes, while Canadians must decide both with just one vote.

The second major criticism of the US system is the two-party system. Although there is no party system defined in the US Constitution, it is true that third party candidates have hardly ever been serious contenders in US history. Certainly, third party candidates are legally able to get elected in the US; one currently sits in the US Congress. Nevertheless, the American system is dominated by the two major parties. However, the "two party system" is perhaps not all it appears to be on the surface. As earlier discussed, Democrats do not always vote with Democrats and Republicans do not always vote with Republicans. Straight party-line votes are relatively uncommon in the US Congress. Many different factions make up either party. This is why we've seen very liberal Democrats like the Kennedys from Massachusetts, and very conservative Democrats like George Wallace from Alabama. The Democratic Party can perhaps best be described as a "coalition of factions", which include groups who represent labor unions, trial lawyers, academic liberals, minorities, and traditional Southern Democrats. The Republican Party, similarly, is made up of groups who represent entrepreneurs and businesspersons, blue-collar workers, libertarians, traditional conservatives and the religious right. In Canada, the same basic factions exist, but the parties in Canada traditionally speak as one voice, while the factions within the parties in the United States often divide, and speak with many different voices. Individual congressmen even speak out alone without fear of reprisal from the party. Indeed, from this perspective it could be argued that the US has more of a multi-party system than Canada does.

However, this "two-party system" has given the US republic an enviable stability that eliminates fears of radical coalitions forming governments, as has been the case in some European parliamentary systems. Of course, this sort of stability is not limited to the United States; it can be seen in the United Kingdom, Australia and, until historically recently, Canada. Yet, to those who would still like more choices than two, they do exist. In the United States, ballots will often have representatives from parties ranging from the Reform party, to the Libertarian party, to the Communist party.

There are of course many other issues that can be examined when comparing the two systems. Some other points of comparison are: Federalism, referendums and interest groups. In looking at all of the issues, many flaws can be found in both the Canadian and the US systems. However, in examining each, the US system would appear to be more democratic than the Canadian one. As flawed as the US system may be, many of the reforms currently being undertaken by the Canadian MPs are already operative within the US system of government including the following: national elections for the Executive, an elected Senate, regional representation, checks and balances in the federal government, and fixed elections for representatives. The Constitution of the United States of America has often been hailed as a model for other governments around the world. It has survived over two hundred years in a nation which has grown from a vast wilderness to the most technologically advanced nation in the world. In fact, the US is the oldest continuously operating Constitutional government currently in existence. Yet this simple document still looked to as a paragon of stability, clarity and flexibility.

A legitimate democracy is one that is representative of the people. One where the people's will is represented in government, not where the government's will is enforced on the people. A democratic system should spell out the absolute rights of its citizens in a clear and understandable manner rather than the absolute rights of a sovereign to rule, whether symbolically or otherwise. Furthermore, these rights should not be allowed to be cast away by use of a notwithstanding clause. Indeed, limiting a person's liberty should be very difficult for a government to change. Can it be claimed that the Canadian system is truly a democracy when the system allows one person, who is not even nationally elected, to wield supreme executive power with little restraint? Might it not be said that while the US model is much less efficient, it is a much more democratically representative by forcing a greater consensus among representatives?

Sources:

    1. US Constitution Online
    2. Constitution Acts 1867 to 1982
    3. Supreme Court Act
    4. Thomas Legislative Information
    5. Library of Parliament
    6. The Whitehouse
    7. Ontario Courts
    8. Democracy Papers
    9. Political Database of the Americas
    10. How Canadians Govern Themselves 4th Edition
    11. Bill Blakie, Member of Parliament
    12. Grant McNally, Member of Parliament

 

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