American Blaze, Canadian Smoke

Ah! How easy it is to roll our eyes from this side of the border as we watch Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, which began on Feb. 9. It was mostly decided in advance, as most Republican senators have said that they will not convict him.

Ah! How easy it is to feel safe from the turpitudes of American democracy, which four years of a populist presidency and a violent attack on the Capitol have shown to be quite fragile.

But when the neighbor’s beautiful mansion that many thought fireproof is set on fire, that is the best time to check how well our own firewalls are working.

Now, we see that those walls are not impervious.

A Prime Minister Whose Power Is Almost Complete

In Canada’s constitutional monarchy, there are far fewer safeguards against an authoritarian or populist minister’s potential overreach.

This assessment is not new. The Canadian political commentator Donald J. Savoie came to that conclusion in his 1999 book “Governing from the Centre,” which has become a classic taught in universities throughout the country ever since. He argues that since Pierre Trudeau, the Canadian system has disproportionately concentrated powers in the hands of the prime minister and his close advisors.

It is hard to contradict him. The prime minister names all of the ministers and deputy ministers. Ministers and deputies rarely stand in the way of the party they belong to, and have religiously respected party discipline for around 100 years. If they go against the prime minister, he can unseat them or throw them out of the caucus. One could certainly think of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, whom Justin Trudeau expelled in 2019.

In the case of a minority government, the deputies can withdraw their confidence from the prime minister, but once again, party discipline makes this scenario improbable if the government has a majority.

There is, of course, the Supreme Court, which has a certain independence from the head of state and can block unconstitutional laws, but it does not have the power to remove an elected official from office.

The American Contrast

In comparison, the American system seems fortified with all of its balances in place. Members of Congress have relative independence from their party. It is the states, rather than an agency of the federal government, that oversee the federal election process. The elected Senate must confirm hundreds of political nominations after long hours of debate.

If That System Could Fall off the Rails, Imagine Ours!

The last four years have certainly taught us that the majority of Western democracies hold on because the politicians in place agree to unwritten rules, such as the one that says that the loser of an election must concede to the winner. Experts of American politics have spent this time asking what can be done when the occupant of the White House decides to leave respect for these political traditions on the doorstep. When he lies without shame. When he kicks government officials who do not want to do his dirty work out of office. The answer was often: not much. And it would be the same in Canada, in the context of a majority government.

Dusting off the Rules

Fortunately, we have the luxury of thinking about these catastrophic scenarios as fire purrs in the hearth of our democracy. But is now not the time to think about the renovations that are necessary for keeping the house in order?

When he took power in 2015, Justin Trudeau promised in an interview not to fall into the same centralist trap that his father did, but we must recognize that the office of prime minister always makes one overly confident. With rumors of federal election in the air, now is the time for all parties to take lessons from the Trump era and to include promises of reform in their platforms.

There are grounds for revisiting our constitution — yes, a tall order — for the purpose of better defining the prime minister’s job. A reconsideration of party discipline will be needed; reinforcing the role and the independence of parliamentarians will also be necessary. We must also discuss a way of removing elected officials from office in the case of serious wrongdoing, beyond asking them to resign.

Establishing new limits will require a big dose of selflessness and political courage; ironically, the same prime minister who benefits the most from our system’s current architecture is the one with the power to change it. Further proof that it is time to take action.

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