Nevertheless, we must recognize that
although, the political order has not disappeared the system of parliamentary
representation, however, has lost some of its currency, at least here in
The Decline of Parliamentarism in
Canada has inherited from its colonial
past a power structure that is fairly centralized in the hands of a single
person, the prime minister. Indeed, the leader of the Canadian government, like
the ancient metropolis vis-à-vis its colonies, can at his leisure take an
impressive number of decisions without even having to consult the very bodies
put in place precisely to limit the exercise of power. He himself appoints the
people who will represent the Queen in this country, the Governor General and
all of the provincial Lieutenant-Governors. He names all members of the Upper
Chamber, all the judges of the Supreme Court, whose powers of legislative
review have considerably increased these past few years, all of the judges of
appeal courts and other federal courts in each of the provinces and
territories, without any participation nor even consultation of Parliament nor
of the various provincial legislatures. Other appointments made according to
the same arbitrary process can be added to that list: all of the executives of
the public service, ambassadors, and several other representatives of the
public order. Of course, the prime minister will himself have decided on the
make-up of his ministerial Cabinet and most often, he controls almost all votes
in Parliament because of his parliamentary majority and party discipline.
As though that were not enough, certain
current conditions which prevail in the country make the situation even more
alarming. There is no possibility of constitutional amendment for the
foreseeable future. The population wishes at all costs to avoid reopening the
Pandora’s box of constitutional negotiations. In addition, not only are the
members of Parliament who belong to the governing party effectively muzzled for
the purposes of the government in power, but the official opposition is
profoundly divided: a right-wing party that only represents the population of
the western provinces, a nationalist party that represents only Quebec, and two
formerly vibrant and dynamic parties that cannot manage to redefine themselves,
the Progressive Conservative Party, which was in power less than 10 years
ago, and a left-wing party that refuses to move closer to the centre, as
opposed to the European tendency. Finally, those poor, powerless
parliamentarians have very few permanent services at their disposal to do their
jobs as critics of the party in power and have all kinds of trouble obtaining
information from a public service deeply devoted to the party which has
governed the country during 70 of the past 100 years.
Yet Canada has come out of the colonial
era. Aside from the purely symbolic role played by the Queen, London has no
involvement whatsoever in Canadian affairs. The country’s Constitution was
patriated and Canadianized in 1982. Unfortunately, however, that operation took
place in an atmosphere that left something to be desired from the point of view
of parliamentary legitimacy. Indeed, this new Constitution, to which a new Charter
of Rights and Freedoms was appended, was the result of a hastily concluded
agreement among nine of the provinces, excluding Quebec, at the beginning of
November 1981. It was proclaimed less than six months later, on
April 17, 1982. This did not leave sufficient time for the necessary
debates to take place in Parliament and the various provincial legislatures. In
fact, all of the legislatures which ratified the agreement did so hastily, and
the representatives of the population did not get an opportunity to express
themselves, as would have been desirable according to proper British
In Quebec in particular, the vast
majority of the members of the National Assembly spoke out against the
Constitution which seriously truncated the powers granted to it by the British
North America Act. My colleague Guy Laforest refers to the “reduction
of the fields of jurisdiction of this Assembly against its will and without
popular consultation”1. He refers to the eminent British political
philosopher John Locke to remind us that “this legislative power is
supreme… and …sacred”2 and that those who amend it “take away that decisive
power, which nobody can have, but by the appointment and consent of the people”3.
To the extent that the Quebec National Assembly has not changed its position
since 1982, whatever the party in power, one may really question the legitimacy
of a Constitution whose legal standing continues to depend very heavily on
Quebec society. One can surely refer to a loss of legitimacy of parliamentarism
Even though the Quebec National
Assembly is still responsible for important files pursuant to the constitutional
jurisdiction of the provincial government, its responsibilities are constantly
encroached upon by the federal government, which frequently usurps the
jurisdiction of the provinces. When the latter attempt to have their
prerogatives respected, they often find themselves pitted against a central
government that is both judge and defendant, in a situation reminiscent of
London’s former position with regard to its colonies. In the field of
education, for instance, Ottawa takes credit for awarding bursaries to
students, funding university chairs and presenting itself as the only
representative of Canadian universities at the international level. In the
health field, Ottawa claims to be the architect and executive of a system that
is nevertheless funded for the most part by the provinces and managed by them.
Again, recently, the Quebec National
Assembly saw itself deprived for all practical purposes of the power of framing
a question in view of a referendum. Indeed, Bill C-20, passed in 1999 by the Canadian
Parliament, authorizes it to exercise a kind of veto over a referendum question
concerning Quebec’s political future by giving itself the power to judge, at
its earliest convenience, the so-called “clarity” of the question.
Finally, the powers of the Quebec
National Assembly and of each Canadian legislature are morally diminished by a
new spirit which emanates from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
It trivializes belonging to a particular province in favour of a new Canadian
nationalism, to the benefit of federal government institutions, now most
frequently referred to as national. For the vast majority of Canadians,
there is a national government which overrides all of the others. The
provinces, federated political entities, are sometimes even considered to be
akin to regional, local or municipal governments. Even an international entity
such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)
recently took it upon itself to refer to Canadian provinces as “intermediary
powers” between the central government and the municipalities. And yet, under
the Canadian Constitution, there are two and only two levels of government in
the country, each one sovereign in its fields of jurisdiction, neither being subordinate
to the other.4
The Quebec population continues to
respect its government and its National Assembly as national
institutions. It is, however, constantly subjected to the influence of the
other provinces and to that of a federal government whose presence is felt
everywhere on its territory. This does not confer any particular lustre to this
“gathering of the clan”, whose members are behaving in an increasingly
These facts do shed some light on the
decline of parliamentarism, at least in this corner of the world. Which raises
the question: is this decline irreversible?
An Irreversible Decline?
I will first reply in a rather
unscientific manner. This decline is not irreversible because it must not be.
We need it not to be irreversible. Our democracy cannot thrive without
parliamentarism. As you can see, I am moving slowly from the normative to
the empirical. Because one day, all of the possible substitutes for
parliamentary democracy will have been tried and found wanting after we have
experienced their futility. In other words, parliamentarism will triumph
because we will need it as we need the very air we breathe.
Parliamentarism is the oxygen of
democracy and we will never be able to get along without it for very long.
In more concrete terms, let us see what
reforms are put forward by parliament detractors. Aside from suggestions
borrowed from the laws of the market, whose tragic limits we are already
beginning to discern, people often refer to direct democracy or frequent consultations
of the population. Referendums no doubt have a role to play in democracy but
they will never replace representation and parliamentary debate, if we are not
to fall into demagogy. People have also referred to direct appeal to the
population through the Internet. In the United States, they refer to this as an
“electronic town hall”. This is worse than a referendum to the extent that only
the most superficial, instinctive and often the most petty of our needs would
get a hearing. We are going to have to realize that legislative decisions are
complex and can only be entrusted to competent people who deserve public
confidence and are given the means to develop those skills.
These means involve research, access to
information, support from staff, and the consequent possibility for
parliamentarians to develop an in-depth knowledge of their files. The American
system provides a good example of the effective operation of a relevant and
powerful parliamentary system. American parliamentarians have a numerous staff
at their disposal and the possibility of accessing information and expertise
that is sometimes just as considerable as that of the executive branch.
Moreover, party discipline is sufficiently lenient to allow each
parliamentarian a fair measure of authority and freedom. That responsibility is
no doubt vastly diminished by the enormous power of money and special interest
groups. That is another story. In any event we cannot necessarily emulate our
neighbour to the south.
Would it not be possible to moderate
the necessary party discipline in a parliamentary system such the Canadian one,
just enough to grant more freedom and more responsibility to our members by
allowing more free votes?
We might also consider certain elements
of proportional representation that would make our system more representative
of the heterogeneous nature of our population. Here again, this would have to
be done in moderation so as to avoid foundering on the reef of parliamentary
anarchy, which would be the result of the imposition of perfect representation.
Proportional representation is usually favoured by the opposition, but there is
marked reluctance when the opposition becomes the governing party thanks to the
But these methods will not by
themselves overcome the formidable obstacles which I raised earlier.
I will not today put forward a miracle solution to halt the deterioration
of social solidarity and the respect of the political order. Nor will I
provide the remedies to the Canadian situation, although it would be easier for
me to do so, but other Canadians might not share my perspective. All I can
hope and wish for is that we may eventually eliminate sterile individualism and
gradually rediscover the relevancy of political institutions. This change seems
to have begun in certain environments, in academic circles. We must also hope
and expect that the rigid party ideology which prevails in Ottawa will
eventually pass. A growing number of experts and commentators are speaking out
against the smothering of Parliament by the office of the Prime Minister. One
must also expect that Quebec will eventually find ways of being distinct within
the Canadian union and that its National Assembly will be the better for it.
What a long list of optimistic wishes
and predictions. Unfortunately, I must acknowledge that I feel much
more convincing when I talk about the factors that contribute to the
decline. In spite of all that, I remain steadfast. We cannot allow
ourselves to become resigned in the face of parliament’s decline.
1. Guy Laforest, Trudeau
et la fin d’un rêve canadien, Quebec, Septentrion, l992, p. 68.
3. John Locke, Treatise
of Civil Government, Paris Flammarion, 1984, par. 227, p. 364.
Quoted by Laforest, op.cit.
4. See the Supreme
Court of Canada Quebec Secession Reference, August 21, 1998,
article 58 in particular.