Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Professor Weinstock asks Mr Harper to be nicer

Daniel Weinstock, who launched the letter signed by 200 academics to protest against the proroguing of parliament, was interviewed on As it Happens last night, and he alarmed me almost as much as Mr Harper does. Now this is a professor of political philosophy, a Trudeau Fellow, an Oxford Ph.D, and so on, and he has the support of most of the constitutional lawyers and political scientists in the country. But his ideas struck me as terrifyingly blinkered, derived entirely from what happens in Ottawa today rather than from any understanding of parliamentary democracy and its principles.

In a parliamentary democracy, he explained [podcast available here], there are no checks and balances as in the American system. So the working of our system of government depends on the executive being nice, on prime ministers who restrain themselves and do not use all the powers parliamentary democracy confers on him. This is Stephen Harper's failing, he told the interviewer: he's not playing nicely with the powers he has, and we need 200 professors to ask him to put some of his powers back in the desk drawer. Be friendly, Mr. Dictator.

But if that's parliamentary democracy, why would Professor Weinstock, or anyone, give it credence? If the only restraint it offers against the abuse of executive power is the executive's modesty and self-restraint? Weinstock might as well argue that communism or fascism would have been fine except that those mean guys Stalin and Mussolini failed to restrain themselves. What kind of political philosophy accepts that you can have a lousy system of government and rely on the niceness of leaders to make it acceptable?

The check and balance in parliamentary democracy is parliament itself. In parliamentary democracies all over the world, leaders who become arrogant, or who underperform, or become policy-challenged, or get caught in scandals, or just lose their charm, are regularly, routinely, and promptly reined in or redirected, or when necessary removed. Leaders are always ambitious and rarely nice, but they are surrounded by other people who are equally ambitious and perfectly able to apply their own ruthlessness against each other.

I know it is not happening in Ottawa -- but that's the problem, Professor. Don't ask Stephen Harper to be nicer, encourage this parliament to unleash its own ambitions.

(The Weinstock letter itself, now widely published in newspaper op-ed pages, is available here.)

Update, January 13: Political scientist and writer Denis Smith comments wisely:
You're quite right to point out that the Weinstock article misses the main point about where power (potentially) lies in the parliamentary system. In both this and the last parliament, the House failed to use its power most of the time: the prime minister only acts the way he does because 307 other MPs let him get away with it. But in one crucial vote in December, the House voted 145 to 143 to order release of unredacted documents to the Afghanistan committee, and the opposition indicated that it would pursue the application of that order when the House reconvenes. The government indicated that it would not obey the order. In effect, it gave notice that it would defy the House's demand. It seems to me that it is this defiance, plus the prorogation, that turned the affair into a parliamentary crisis. The House's way to resolve the crisis, obviously, is to defeat the government in a confidence vote, and it will be in a position to do so on March 3 or 4. Hardly anyone except you, in all the recent commentary, has mentioned this elementary point.

But surely Weinstock is right to insist that the system also involves conventions of mutual restraint which the prime minister has ignored. He's done that repeatedly. He should not have asked for prorogation in December 2008; he should not have asked for it in December 2009. It's important for commentators to remind him of those conventions of restraint.

And then, as you say, the House must assure that the conventions are backed up with its sanction. Maybe the commentators don't mention this because the opposition parties have been strangely silent about the House's power as well. They need to threaten defeat in a confidence vote, and carry through with the threat in March. If they want to do it without a virtually automatic request for dissolution after that vote, they need to talk to each other about an alternative government drawn from the present House (as they did in 2008).

To restore the power of the House that you encourage, there are a whole lot of steps the parties must take. It would certainly be helpful if they could begin to speak honestly about how difficult that really will be.
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