Even the media are growing weary of the government
as Canadians prepare to cast their ballots
By Paul Tuns
The Liberal Party is adrift in a sea of arrogance which some observers hope will finally lead to a chastisement at the polls.
The mainstream, often times sycophantic media has even criticized Prime Minister Jean Chretien for his last minute manipulations of cabinet, a mini-budget that showered goodies on the electorate, and announcements of spending in electorally important regions. The press corps has dubbed the Liberal campaign plane Air-ogance.
But his party’s arrogance goes much deeper than an attempt to manipulate voters in the week before an election call. Chretien has dismissed his opposition as extremist for holding socially conservative positions, taken Catholic voters for granted, and ignored pro-life, pro-family Liberal backbenchers.
First, there are the attacks on Stockwell Day and the Canadian Alliance. According to theHill Times, a newspaper that covers Parliament, Chretien said this election will be one between church and state. The smug arrogance of self-congratulatory liberals over their own tolerance is unbecoming a man and party seeking a mandate from the people. In his role as defender of the “Canadian” virtue of compassion and tolerance, Chretien has become intolerant of any attempt to raise issues of moral concern. It is nothing less than arrogant to believe that an issue isn’t even open to debate just because it seems his side has won the debate in the elite circles of media, academia and the courts.
Another problem of arrogance for the Liberal Party is the assumption that Catholics, especially French-Canadians outside Quebec, Italian and Portuguese voters, will continue to support the Liberal Party. These constituencies are loyal Liberals, but one wonders how long Chretien can dismiss the concerns about the country’s moral directions that (especially) Catholic voters have before alienating them. After all, on two occasions this year, Chretien removed any doubt that the party under his leadership supports abortion on demand. As he declared boldly to the Liberal parliamentary caucus in Winnipeg Aug. 29, “We Liberals support a woman’s right to choose.”
Lastly but perhaps most importantly is the arrogance of Chretien in pushing his every whim upon his party and Parliament. While it is true that a prime minister is also the leader and most influential member of his party, under Chretien this has been taken to new extremes.
Increasingly, MPs and others concerned about our democratic institutions complain that the power of elected MPs has decreased as the power of the Prime Minister’s Office has grown.
The Oct. 5 Ottawa Citizen reports on a Public Policy Forum survey sent to 1,300 corporate executives, lobbyists and top bureaucrats which finds that “backbench MPs and senators [are] almost irrelevant.” While backbenchers have long complained about a lack of influence in the decision-making process, the survey finds “MPs and senators have even less sway than five years ago.”
University of Moncton political science professor Donald Savoie said, “This continues the disturbing trend of concentrating more and more power in the hands of fewer and fewer people. According to that study, there are about 100 people who have all the power.” Savoie, author ofGoverning from the Center: The Concentration of Power in Canadian Politics, worries about the health of a democracy when unelected men and women behind the scenes wield more influence on legislation than MPs.
National Post Ottawa bureau chief Robert Fife wrote in that paper’s October 19 edition that there is a “decline in Parliament” (read: democracy) “due to the domination by the Prime Minister’s Office, Cabinet and an unchecked bureaucracy.”
Peter MacKay, House leader for the Conservatives, recently condemned the centralization of power within the PMO. “This is a terrible thing for democracy. It emasculates democracy when you marginalize individual members that have been democratically elected. Power is taken away from the entire Parliament and completely centralized in one person.”
Canadian Alliance House leader Chuck Strahl said he doubted the situation could “ever change under Chrétien’s leadership,” because “he was groomed that way and he’s taken it to new levels.” He condemned placing decision-making power in the hands of a dozen people close to the Prime Minister and taking it away from 300 other elected members of Parliament.
The problem is not irreparable. A Sept. 25 National Post editorial said free votes, a relaxation in party discipline and more independent-minded MPs could reassert the preeminence of Parliament in decision-making.
Under Chretien, however, there seems little hope that systemic change is possible or that Chretien will loosen party discipline, so what is needed are MPs willing to stand up to the PMO and vote their conscience or represent their constituents. At present, MPs vote the way the party whip tells them to and are seen by the PMO and cabinet as a government liaison to the constituencies. While there are a handful of courageous Liberal MPs such as Tom Wappel, Paul Steckle and Dan McTeague (to name a few), they are few and far between. Other MPs, some of whom may be pro-life, feel the crack of the party whip and fall back in line.
A poll conducted by the Institute for Research on Public Policy earlier this year found 82 per cent of respondents say if MPs were guided by their conscience and constituents rather than by their leaders, the quality of federal legislation would improve.
A shift in power from the PMO to Parliament would restore deliberative democracy, replacing the whims of a handful of people close to the Prime Minister with the ideas, opinions, beliefs, visions, and principles of 301 elected representatives of the people. It may also reduce the arrogance of the Prime Minister and his circle and limit their power to impose their values and silence dissenting voices.