Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Smackdown: Ajzenstat on Flanagan

Janet Ajzenstat takes down Tory apparatchik/political scientist Tom Flanagan's "the constitution is what the government wants it to be" Globe op-ed on her blog here. Actually Janet A. is on fire these days -- lots of posts worth reading on her "Idea File" blog lately.

There has been a lot of blog and media response to the Harper government's attempt to say, in response to the coalition challenge in December, that the government is not accountable to Parliament. There was Don Newman's demolition of John ("the government will go over the heads of Parliament, over the heads of the governor general") Baird, now a YouTube sensation . A thoughtful piece by James Marsh at HistoryWire. Even Rick Mercer's Rant on the CBC last night (online yet? -- I think not), took up the theme, with a nice little nod to the Dominion Institute.

But there's a thread running through these pieces: a declaration that the government and its apologists are just wrong, and that more education, more explanation of our parliamentary system, is what's really needed. I think that misses part of the problem. Canadians don't need lectures, we need a discussion.

There really is an alternate theory of government out there, and it was not invented by John Baird last month. You might say parliamentary democracy in Canada is challenged by a claim for something like plebiscitory democracy: the government faces an election once in a while, and thereafter the winner can Do What It Wants. Now, that's a bad theory, and a dangerous theory, and ultimately a tyrannical theory. But it's not confined to the Harperians, and it's stronger than we imagine. It's been around in Canada since the heyday of Mackenzie King. In fact, it's how Canadian government operates most of the time. And if we don't like how the government acted recently, we need to confront the systemic abuse.

This is the blogpost version of a much larger dissertation I don't seem to have time for. But it matters.
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