Book Review: ‘I’ve Got Control Now’

Parliament hangs by the thin cotton thread of government-issue gloves. Once a week the Commons speaker parades down the corridors in a tricorn hat accompanied by security guards marching in spotless white gloves. It is a display of ancient parliamentary democracy in form, if not in fact. The effect is mildly infuriating and mainly pathetic.

Professor David Schneiderman of the University of Toronto’s law faculty argues the Prime Minister’s Office has cut the brake line on Parliament and gone full throttle with executive control. “This is not meant to be a polemic directed at the Harper Conservative government,” he writes. It is what it is, and has been going on for some time.

Red, White & Kind Of Blue? suggests the 40th and 41st Parliaments marked a new low in executive control that appears to ape traditions of the American republic – but only the bad parts. “Political authority is now, more than ever, concentrated in the person of the prime minister,” Schneiderman writes; “The Harper initiatives were intended to move constitutional culture further along in a U.S. direction, with an emphasis on limited and divided government. He has sought to do so by exploiting Canada’s constitutional malleability via discretionary prerogatives and control over parliamentary legislative agenda.”

So, the Prime Minister tried to amend the Supreme Court Act by shoehorning illegal clauses into an omnibus bill alongside fisheries regulations. He signed and ratified a 31-year trade pact with China without ever consulting Parliament. He has staff assign MPs to recite speeches they’d never written, and vote on bills they’d never read.

And who was to stop him? Red, White detects “a disinterest in the press to instruct Canadians about the parliamentary fundamentals of responsible government”; “As Conservative talking points get channeled through the rituals of balanced journalistic practice – hearing from one side and then another – there seems to be no countervailing narrative that is as compelling or effective.”

Red, White is crisp and unnerving. It suggests Parliament is so malleable, and many of its participants so weak, it dispensed with ancient checks and balances without a shot being fired. “The presidentialization of the Canadian prime minister is improbable only because the prime minister is already so much more powerful than the president,” Red, White concludes.

Stephen Harper nine years ago told the Western Standard, “Well, I’ve got more control now.” The Prime Minister was more eloquent in a 1997 remark that Professor Schneiderman pulls from the archives. “Anybody who has seriously studied the parliamentary system knows that the House of Commons has long ceased to be a serious legislative body,” Harper said then. “It is first an electoral college to maintain the power of the incumbent Prime Minister and second a debating forum for partisan alternatives to the current dictator.”

Just don’t try to dispense with the white gloves. Parliament prizes its traditions.

By Holly Doan

Red, White & Kind Of Blue? The Conservatives & the Americanization of Canadian Constitutional Culture, by David Schneiderman; University of Toronto Press; 328 pages; ISBN 9781-4426-2948; $23

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