Stephen C. Woodworth, J.D., M.A.P. (Juris Doctor, Master of Applied Politics) is a former Member of Parkiament for Kitchener Centre
In a world where even democratic governments struggle with the tendency toward reduced restraint on strong executive powers, it’s laudable that an organization has arisen seeking to provide insight and tools which strengthen those whose mission is to oppose unrestrained executive power. I am speaking, of course, about Opposition International.
Ever the contrarian, I want to examine some questions of interest to Opposition International, but from a slightly different perspective. I’m going to address some remarks to those who aren’t in opposition but, rather, who are members of political parties which occupy executive offices of government. I think opposition members will be interested in my observations too. This mutual interest possessed by both governing party members and opposition party members will, I hope, become apparent in the course of what I write.
If you are reading as someone who is familiar with the academic analysis and theory of democracy you will already be familiar with much of what I intend to describe here but, who knows, perhaps the way I connect the dots might be novel to you. If you haven’t yet examined this field, I hope the insights I provide will be doubly useful.
MY CONCERNS ABOUT CANADA
Before delving into the topic, though, I’d like to recount to you a little bit about the current events which lead me to concern for the state of democracy in my country, Canada.
The idea that Canada’s democracy is in trouble could be your first surprise. It is undeniable that many countries around the world face a much greater degree of democratic challenge than that faced by Canada. Nonetheless, as an advanced Western democracy Canada benefits from a degree of positive stereotyping, with favourable assumptions that shield it from deep scrutiny.
It’s worth describing in some detail an example of this phenomenon which I encountered in examining studies about democratic backsliding during the recent pandemic.
The very accomplished V-Dem Institute developed a series of indicators which resulted in an assessment of Canada as “low risk” for pandemic backsliding. Unfortunately, that assessment was based on data which included an inaccurate characterization of Canadian national traveler hotel quarantine measures as applicable to foreign nationals only whereas those applied equally to Canadian citizens.
Also, the data classify restrictions on Canada’s legislature as Category 1 (“No, not at all. The lawmaking role of the national legislature in not affected.”) seemingly overlooked the truncation of the Canadian legislature’s consideration of initial emergency measures, the significant reduction of the legislature’s sitting days and representative character, the government’s failure to comply with normal annual budget submission to the House of Commons, and the decree-making executive power to order travelers entering Canada into hotel quarantine, all of which hold particular significance in light of the acknowledged pre-existing weakness of the House of Commons vis a vis its executive (which I’ll touch on below). It was clear to me that these additional circumstances would merit a re-categorization of Canada to a “medium risk” of pandemic democratic backsliding classification overall.
As further irony, the V-Dem classification was, in turn, used itself as a data source in the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (“WFD”) ‘Legislative Responses to COVID-19 Tracker,’ thereby repeating its erroneous assessment of Canada’s classification in that index. A more fine-grained analysis of House of Commons’ performance I later conducted (as yet unpublished) illuminated much more accurately the alarming degree of Canada’s democratic backsliding associated with the pandemic.
Another factor is that the global political zeitgeist (which inevitably influences the agenda-setting of journalistic and academic attention alike directs critical attention to regimes which are not identified with what have become known (perhaps not always accurately) as “progressive” political policies and away from those who do (like Canada’s).
Nonetheless, as a Canadian, my concern for democracy accounts not merely for its current level, but also for the direction of changes. Whereas many newly established democracies are moving toward strengthening democratic practices and institutions, I am alarmed and dismayed to see democratic institutions and practices in Canada going the other way, weakening.
It isn’t well-known outside of academia, but Canada’s national legislature, its Parliament, is well-known among academics as the “weak sister” of Westminster democratic legislatures vis-à-vis its executive branch. The Canadian political system is characterized by “a strong executive, a weak legislature, a few powerful people, and many ‘no- bodies,’ all working in a system where representation is accomplished far more through party leaders and appointments than through mass election” (Blidook, 2012, Constituency Influence in Parliament: Countering the Centre. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, page1, see also pages 5, 11).
Studies have found Prime Ministerial dominance not only of the legislature but of Cabinet, executive abuse of constitutional conventions, and the absence from collective will formation of specific policy mandates on which governments can be held accountable as expected in a democracy. The Canadian legislature is an outlier even among Westminster systems in its weak performance vis-a-vis its executive domination, suggesting that the House of Commons’ significantly weak performance does not flow inevitably from its Westminster roots.
Docherty’s comparative examination of ‘democratic deficits’ found that Canadian legislatures “are often criticized for failing to perform the scrutiny and oversight for which they were designed, much less the role of legislative initiator often ascribed to the U.S. Congress.” Surveys repeatedly demonstrate that citizens hold a negative view of the performance of legislators.
Interviews in 2015 with former MPs by the Samara Institute revealed that MPs themselves feel “cut off from the essential responsibilities they are meant to uphold.” That study reported observations that the House of Commons has “the form of parliamentary democracy but not the substance” (citing columnist Andrew Coyne), where representatives go through preordained motions “without real consequences.” Another Samara Institute report helpfully articulates the aspirational vision held by most citizens, of “political representatives who are independent, thoughtful, engaged and empowered,” contrasting with the lack of capacity and willingness to perform core functions of scrutinizing the executive and reviewing legislation.
Against that background of weak legislative performance, further diminishment of democratic practices and institutions should elicit grave concern for every Canadian.
In the unpublished study I mentioned earlier, I found a startling reduction in the performance and function of Canada’s Parliament during the pandemic, from an 82% reduction in the number of recorded votes taken and 50% reduction in Bills passed to a 48% reduction in time spent debating non-government legislative proposals. Subsequent events included attempts by Canada’s Prime Minister to intervene in a police investigation for political purposes (the Lucki scandal), repeated sole sourcing of government contracts to friends of Cabinet Ministers, and the suspension of civil liberties in response to a prolonged but peaceful mass demonstration in the nation’s capital by dissenters from government policy (the Emergencies Act use).
The fact is that a direct line can be drawn between the diminishment of legislative performance and those kind of related executive over-reach consequences. That connection highlights the difference that effective democratic legislators can make, whether they are in opposition parties or in “government” parties. It’s an important concern in Canada, and it’s an important concern in every democracy around the world today.
In my next installment, I hope to elaborate on the reasons why.