Thursday, May 13, 2010

History of Prime Ministerial Autocracy

Lawrence Martin in the Globe looks into John Boyko's new biography of R. B. Bennett, noted here some weeks ago. Bennett, he notes, served as his own foreign minister and finance minister:
He wasn’t long in office before a cartoonist at the Winnipeg Free Press depicted a cabinet room in which every man at the table was Bennett.

The showpiece of Bennett’s stewardship was his dramatic shift to the left with a Canadian version of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. He introduced it without telling anyone in his cabinet. The only exceptions were his foreign minister and minister of finance. They were well briefed....

While our conventional wisdom suggests that the office of the prime minister has slowly evolved over time into something resembling an elected dictatorship, a look at Bennett’s inglorious days at the helm tells a different story. Our power mongers have been around for a while.
Ask a lot of our political commentators about the rise of prime ministerial autocracy, and they will say, "oh, since the Trudeau era..." which is roughly equivalent to saying, "in the mists of antiquity."

Martin's right to point to an earlier origin. Laurier and Borden frequently faced effective cabinet and caucus resistance. King and Bennett, the first prime ministers not chosen by or accountable to the party caucuses, did not tolerate caucus dissent. They grasped their new status immediately. Our political science community has never quite caught up.

[R.B. Bennett cartoon by Arch Dale.]
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