Democratic Despotism: The Extremes of Parliamentary Democracy

Thursday, November 1, 2007


Written by Tristan Dineen

Tristan Dineen

“There’s no question that the prime minister has all the power he could possibly want.”
Donald Savoie on Stephen Harper

There are very few aspects of the American political system that I agree with, let alone would advocate in the place of Canadian political institutions, but nevertheless recent events in Canadian politics have led me to support one such American institution: the clear separation of powers.

All political systems have their problems. For all the talk of checks and balances in liberal-democracy, the division of powers within many liberal-democratic states has the tendency to produce absurd and woefully unbalanced situations where the executive and legislature belong to opposing political factions (as is what commonly happens in the United States where a Republican president may face a Congress dominated by Democrats or vice versa). Equally imbalanced is the situation in Canada, the United Kingdom, and other parliamentary systems where the executive and the legislature are effectively one and the same – with one political party dominating the entire government by holding the majority position in Parliament and by holding the Prime Minister’s office (especially where it has the power to appoint Supreme Court Justices). While the American political system has a tendency to be so factionalized that it ends up being unworkable, the Canadian political system (despite the minority governments of recent years) has generally suffered from the opposite problem: too much power being concentrated in the office of the Prime Minister, and this is the subject of this article.

The general perception of the political maneuverings surrounding the recent Throne Speech in Ottawa has been that a weak Stephane Dion (and a weak Liberal Party by extension) is being thoroughly dominated by Stephan Harper, who, despite having a minority Conservative government, is increasingly running the show and calling the shots as though he possessed a majority. It is hardly surprising that James Travers in his national affairs column in the Guelph Mercury cites leading political scholar Donald Savoie’s viewpoint that Harper is increasingly viewing Parliament as a kind of “palace court” and that the prime minister is “behaving much like an absolute monarch.” A political economist at the Universite de Moncton, a member of the Order of Canada, and author of three dozen books, including one exposing the incredible concentration of power under the Liberal regime of Jean Chretien, Savoie certainly has the credentials to be making such claims.

Taking advantage of the evident fear that the disorganized Liberals have for an immediate election campaign, Harper has essentially been able to divide and rule by undermining his political opponents who could easily bring him down if they joined forces. Increasingly, he is able to govern with virtual impunity because no party wants to be the one blamed for forcing an early election that Canadians generally don’t want. He certainly isn’t the first prime minister to do this, nor is he the first to concentrate power in the office of the prime minister, as Travers says, “In practice that means two offices that serve the prime minister rule while backbenchers, cabinet ministers and ultimately Parliament watch.” Unwilling to risk an election, MPs increasingly bow to the wishes of Harper’s inner circle and dance to his tune. Thus, Harper is able to bypass Parliament and do things like appoint a panel of his choosing to make recommendations on Canada’s post-2009 policy on Afghanistan, who would report to him directly and not to Parliament. It is hard to ignore the gross patronage involved here and how “In return for access, prestige and handsome per diems, they whisper advice the king can accept, dismiss or ignore depending on his wants, needs or whims.” Calling Stephen Harper a “king” or an “aspiring king” given his blatant efforts to control or bypass Parliament, the press, and the other aspects of Canadian political life, no longer seems that outlandish.

It was during Jean Chretien’s decade long lock on Canadian politics that I first heard the office of prime minister under a situation of majority government referred to as being one of “benevolent dictatorship” by my high school history teacher and the actions by Stephen Harper over the past few years indicate that, given the right conditions, a prime minister can exercise a similar form of democratic despotism even under the conditions of a minority government. The fact that the prime minister, unlike the American president, is not elected separately from the legislature, and given the fact that the prime minister is chief of his political party the result is the dominance of both the executive and the legislative branches of government by one individual. Combine this with the prime minister’s ability to appoint judges to the Supreme Court as well as reward supporters with patronage appointments in the bureaucracy and there really isn’t any aspect of government that the prime minister does not have at least some control and influence over. Is it not telling when President Bush’s domestic policies are defeated or held up in Congress again and again while Prime Minister Harper’s policies generally sail through despite his minority of seats in Parliament?

Given the nature of the parliamentary system, and this not only applies to Canada but to the UK, Australia and many other countries following a British-style system as well, a prime minister with a majority government (or with a minority government with a docile opposition) is capable of enacting domestic and foreign policy in an almost dictatorial manner. While the U.S. president can sometimes behave dictatorially in foreign affairs, he is hardly capable of doing so domestically and his plans are often frustrated. This, as I have said before, brings with it a whole other set of weaknesses and drawbacks but, unlike the situation in Harper’s Canada, Bush is hardly a democratic despot to his countrymen – he is simply a ham-stringed and unpopular politician in the U.S. and a straight up non-democratic despot to a wider world which did not elect him!

Looking at examples like these it is hardly surprising why disillusionment with contemporary democratic systems is so widespread and why a combination of electoral reform, the direct involvement of citizens in the decision-making process at the local level, inspiring leadership, the elimination of political patronage, and the introduction of meaningful checks and balances is so critical to revitalizing public service and participation. The fact that so much power can be concentrated in the hands of a single person in an arrangement that claims to be democratic is hardly inspiring and more than a little disconcerting.


James Travers, “Harper enjoying the status of an omnipotent monarch,” in The Guelph Mercury, Monday October 22, 2007.

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