“Abstaining from politics is like turning your back on a beast when it is angry and intent on ripping your guts out” – Taiaiake Alfred
Yesterday morning, hundreds of Canadians congregated in front of Rideau Hall to watch Prime Minister-designate, Justin Trudeau and 30 of his courtiers be appointed to Her Majesty’s Privy Council – or as many of us call it, “Cabinet”. Thousands more kept tabs on the swearing in ceremony by way of social media, television, and good old fashioned word of mouth. Much like the presidential inaugurations we see in the United States, Justin Trudeau marched through the streets of the capital, with his wife at his side while nearby supporters cheered loudly – a pristine, president-like image, indeed. Before entering Rideau Hall, Mr. Trudeau’s children conveniently ran into his arms and he proceeded to carry them up the steps of the Governor General’s residence. Our former Prime Minister would never demonstrate such affection towards his family on live television. In fact, Mr. Harper’s first PR scandal took place when he opted to shake his children’s hands before sending them off to school. But, alas, Canada has found a new patriarch. A better patriarch. Justin Trudeau. He is our father now: white, straight, tall, handsome, liberal, Liberal, and tolerant of others. He will take care of us; he will carry us over terrain that we cannot tackle, much like he did for his own children yesterday morning.
However, before us Canadians get too lost in Mr. Trudeau’s thick head of hair or puppy dog eyes, it is important take a step back and critically examine the power that our new patriarch wields in our Westminster-style parliamentary democracy.
For starters, to hold that yesterday’s ceremony at Rideau Hall possessed any meaningful resemblance to a presidential inauguration would be a gross mischaracterization of how the Canadian political system operates. Notwithstanding the differences in the role that the Canadian Prime Minister serves compared to the American President (the former is the head of government while the latter is both the head of government and the head of state), the fundamental difference between the events of yesterday compared to a presidential inauguration is this: in Canada, the Head of Government (i.e., the first minister or “Prime Minister” or “Justin Trudeau”) is appointed. That’s right, folks. You heard me correctly. In Canada, we do not directly elect our Prime Minister. As such, yesterday’s swearing in ceremony was not an expression of the ‘will of the people’, but rather an illustration of where power truly lies in Canada’s parliamentary democracy. I will save you all the suspense: in Canada, power does not rest with the people; rather, it lies with the British Crown.
So, what are the implications of power resting with the Crown? Well, first off, it means that Canada’s head of state is the Queen of England. And as the head of state, the Queen has almost unlimited legal authority to exercise her power in any way she sees fit. For instance, the Queen has the legal authority to unilaterally summon or prorogue parliament and strike down any law that has been given due approval by Canada’s elected representatives in the House of Commons. To be clear, the powers of the British Crown are real and can be exercised at any time.
One of the greatest powers that the ruling monarch of the day possess, however, is her or his authority to appoint a Cabinet. Today, the Cabinet consists of several ministers who head several departments. The Department of Finance, for instance, is headed by the Minister of Finance; the Department of Justice is headed by the Minister of Justice… you get the idea. The role of the first minister (or “Prime Minister”): hold it all together and maybe provide a little bit of direction to the rest of Cabinet when needed. That’s right, from a purely theoretical perspective, in a Westminster parliamentary democracy the Prime Minister is nothing more than a “first among equals”. In practice… well, let’s just say that our first ministers have taken advantage of their position in a very perverse way. Anyhow, in our parliamentary system, the Cabinet is, by all intents and purposes, the government. And the role of Cabinet in modern times is quite simple: create laws and policies on behalf of Her Majesty. She is, after all, quite busy.
Luckily, over the years, the British Crown has been benevolent enough to delegate a considerable amount of authority to its loyal subjects –i.e., us, the people. Thanks to a constitutional convention (or unwritten constitutional traditions) known as “responsible government”, in order for a Cabinet to legitimately propose and enact laws on behalf of Her Majesty, they must maintain the confidence of the majority of elected representatives in the House of Commons. If Cabinet loses the confidence of the House, then Her Majesty appoints a new Cabinet that can command such confidence. Sound unstable? Not to worry: thanks to the rise of highly disciplined political parties, Cabinets have not experienced too much difficulty in maintaining the confidence of the people’s elected representatives. These representatives are known as MPs. To clear up any ambiguities, the role of the MP is to simply yay or nay the laws and policies that are proposed by Cabinet.
Other important constitutional conventions have developed over the years. For instance, by convention, the Governor General (on behalf of Her Majesty, of course), appoints a Cabinet that is comprised of elected MPs from the party that has secured the most seats in the House of Commons. By convention, the Governor General will appoint the leader of the party with the most seats in the House of Commons to serve as the first minister in Cabinet (the “Prime Minister”). By convention, this leader is also a sitting member of parliament who was elected by the good people of her or his riding.
However, it is important to remember that these conventions are designed to remain somewhat flexible and evolve overtime based on the values of society. For example, Canadian society no longer believes that Her Majesty has the legitimate political authority to appoint Cabinet. Therefore, by convention, Cabinet is now handpicked by the leader of the party with the most seats in the House of Commons (who is usually an elected representative) and subsequently appointed by the Governor General. So even though the ruling monarch still possesses the legal authority to appoint Cabinet as she or he sees fit, in practice this appointment process is entirely in the hands of the party leader who has secured the most seats in the House – i.e., the Prime Minister.
In my view, the Prime Minister’s unilateral authority to appoint her or his cabinet is the most undemocratic convention that has developed in Canada. Essentially, Canadians have allowed for a monarch to be replaced by an autocrat. Let me break this down for you. Justin Trudeau is the leader of the party with the most seats in the House of Commons. Granted, his party received 39.5 percent of the popular vote in Canada; however, due to the fact that only 68% of eligible voters exercised their democratic right, that 39.5 percent translates to roughly 6.9 million votes. Now, I know what you are thinking. Jeremy, I would much rather have 6.9 million voters decide who gets to appoint Cabinet than a monarch who does not even live in Canada. And you are probably right, but the reality is that 6.9 million Canadians did not directly elect Justin Trudeau.
The reality is that 26 294 people in the Papineau riding directly elected Justin Trudeau as their MP (it should be noted that 48 percent of people in Papineau did not vote for Mr. Trudeau). Additionally, only a couple thousand Canadians voted for Justin Trudeau to lead the Liberal Party in the Liberal leadership convention a few years back. I am hardly a mathematician, but according to my calculations, that is far less than one 1 percent of the population that directly decides who gets the unilateral authority to appoint Cabinet, the only body in the land that has the legal and political legitimacy to propose laws and policies. And sure, a few thousand people deciding who gets to be our autocrat (umm, I mean “Prime Minister”) is incrementally better than a monarch from some far off land – but as Canadians, we need to ask ourselves if incrementally better is good enough. I, for one, have my doubts.
Now, do not get me wrong. I am not suggesting that Canadians should adopt the republican (the ideology, not the party) model that our friends south of the 49th adhere to. I am not even suggesting that Canadians directly elect our Cabinet and accompanying first minister. I am not a populist and I understand full well that responsible government works far better when our elected representatives are not simply delegates. What I am suggesting is that there is a more democratic way to go about selecting Cabinets and first ministers – a way that does not radically undermine our Westminster-style parliamentary democracy.
For instance, in Nunavut and the North West territories, Cabinets and first ministers are selected by all of the elected representatives after an election has been held. Moreover, in Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, the first ministers are selected by the elected representatives in their respective parties. In my view, it would not be a radical jump if entire cabinets were selected in a similar manner.
As it stands, the most important decision-making body in the land is selected in the same way that children in a school yard pick teams for a game of kickball. The most popular and charismatic kid stands on top of the play structure and handpicks her most loyal friends – sometimes based on their athletic ability, but usually based on how much she likes them. The gym teacher does not possess the legitimacy to undermine the leader’s pick (if he tried to then he would certainly have a revolt of his hands) and the rest of the kids in the school yard are far too fearful to suggest a more equitable selection process. The result is that the status quo – no matter how bleak or undemocratic it may be – remains entrenched. That is, the popular kid who enjoys the support of a few other elites in the school yard gets to pick his team while everybody else watches on with reluctant, yet disempowered acceptance.
However, the reality is that our democracy is not a game of schoolyard kickball and therefore its most powerful officials should not be selected as if it were. Plain and simple. And please do not be fooled by the representational imperative that Mr. Trudeau has so strategically integrated into his team selection process. A Cabinet that is socially, economically, and culturally diverse might appear progressive on the surface – but when it is selected in an autocratic manner, it is nothing but a sham.
In that regard, perhaps it is time that we Canadians looked beyond our new patriarch’s flashy rhetoric (and even flashier hairstyle) and take a moment to critically reflect on the true meaning of yesterday’s ceremony. Were yesterday’s events a reflection of the democratic will of Canadians, or the autocratic power that we have allowed our first ministers to take hold of? Did it signal the beginning of “Real Change” in Canadian political life, or a bleak reminder of a seemingly unchangeable status quo? In a modern age where the Canadian population is less deferential to authority, should a first minister have the power to unilaterally select her or his Cabinet, or is there another way? The answers to these questions will surly inform the way our constitutional conventions develop in the 21st century. It is, therefore, now up to Canadians to make some noise.