Friday, June 22, 2018

Champlain podcast on prime ministerial power

The blog of the Champlain Society has been cross-posting me every so often lately, which is extremely nice of them, and the least I can do is counter-plug,

I'm not an earbuds guy, and don't follow podcasts much. Audio is so slow! And so linear! In the time it takes a couple of podcasters to clear their throats and introduce themselves, I can skim scores of blog posts and stop on the interesting ones.

But for you with your ears on, the Champlain Society's CanHist podcast "Witness to Yesterday" must be pre-eminent in the field of talking Canadian history.  There is lots to choose from at the site, the production quality is high, and the people doing it are both knowledgeable and enthusiastic about what they do. And they range widely across Canadian history from new research to classic publications of the Champlain Society.

Substantial too. I broke my rule today and listened to Greg Marchildon and Patrice Dutil, together the backbone of "Witness to Yesterday," discussing the long history of prime ministerial power in Canada, drawing on Dutil 's 2017 book Prime Ministerial Power in Canada. Marchildon and Dutil each have both academic cred and civil service experience, and they put it to good use in a 35 minute conversation.

I do have a little bone to pick with their argument, however.  One of Dutil's goals is to undermine the argument that centralization of power is a recent thing, mostly a creation of the first Trudeau prime ministership.  Dutil makes a strong case that Canadian prime ministers have always been strong, right back to Macdonald in the 1860s.  It's an idea that has been picked up and circulated, as in this review by former top civil servant Mel Cappe.
I argued .... that the evolution of this phenomenon was important, but it was not new. Rather, I noted, it could be traced back to Trudeau père and the advent of a centralizing PMO that had the likes of Marc Lalonde, Jim Coutts, and Tom Axworthy continuously accruing power to “The Centre” and changing the dynamic of decision-making in government. Turns out I was wrong. As Patrice Dutil, a capable historian and scholar of public administration, shows in Prime Ministerial Power in Canada: Its Origins Under Macdonald, Laurier and Borden, those trends should be cast back [to the beginning of Canadian governance].
Implicitly there is a critique here of the "friendly dictator" and "democratic deficit" analysis of Canadian politics, which argues that prime ministers have relatively recently become able to act without restraint. No, goes the counter-argument, it's always been that way; it's implicit in how parliamentary democracy.

Dutil and Marchildon argue in the podcast that prime ministers have always had very broad powers. And they are right, to a degree. But listening to the podcast makes clear that they are talking about administrative power. Macdonald, Laurier, all the successful prime ministers, were indeed able to shape the senior civil service to their favoured structure, and often to control or circumvent the power of cabinet ministers over their own departments.

Fair enough.  But that's administrative power.  I'd still argue that the accrual of political power to the prime minister and the staff in his or her office is a relatively recent -- and dangerous -- development.  Early Canadian history abounds of examples of cabinets and caucuses restraining the policy preferences of prime ministers and party leaders, and even of removing party leaders who  become unacceptable. These days? Not so much, and that really is a historic change.

Still, a terrific podcast you might add to your playlist.

Update, June 23:  And here's a new one, with Greg Marchildon talking to Dennis Molinaro about the origins of the security state in Canada.

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