Saturday, April 28, 2012

A polarized Canada

Several weeks ago, a journalist from the Montreal Gazette called me up for a conversation about a feature she was writing about the increasingly polarized nature of Canadian politics. We talked for about an hour, and a fair bit of what I had to say appeared in this story which ran in today's paper. Check it out!

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Happy Charter Day! And the importance of an "s"

Today's the 30th anniversary of the formal adoption of the 1982 Constitution Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. A lot of ink has been recently devoted to the Harper government's non-observance of this day. I could add to this, but instead I'd like to draw your attention to the text of the formal statement issued by Heritage Minister James Moore and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson which was originally posted here. I say "originally posted" lest the initial text be changed.

The full statement reads:

Statement by the Honourable James Moore, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, and the Honourable Rob Nicholson, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, on the 30th Anniversary of the Proclamation of the Constitution Act of 1982

OTTAWA, April 17, 2012 - Today marks the 30th Anniversary of the Proclamation of the Constitution Act of 1982, which was formally signed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on April 17, 1982, in the presence of tens of thousands of Canadians on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

This anniversary marks an important step in the development of Canada’s human rights policy. Building on Diefenbaker’s Canadian Bill of Rights of 1960, the Constitution Act of 1982 enshrined certain rights and freedoms that had historically been at the heart of Canadian society into a constitutional document known as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Constitution Act of 1982 empowered our government to amend every part of Canada’s constitution, for the very first time.

As we look ahead to Canada’s 150th Anniversary in 2017, we encourage all Canadians to commemorate the milestones that have built our nation and made us the great country we are today.

There are all sorts of things that can be critiqued about this statement, starting with the omission of the Prime Minister and architect of the deal, Pierre Trudeau. But because I'm in a peculiar mood, let me instead draw your attention to paragraph 3 of the statement. There's a rather important little "s" that is missing from the end of the word "government". Because as any constitutional expert worth their salt knows, most parts of Canada's constitution cannot be amended by any single government. In some cases, it takes at least two, in most it takes eight (seven provincial governments representing 50% of the population, plus the federal government), and in a few key areas it takes eleven governments to amend the constitution.

So unless there is a super-secret plan by the Harper government to start unilaterally amending the constitution, his ministers' staffers did a terrible job proofing that mediocre statement.

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Thursday, April 05, 2012

Resign! Or not...

I got rather frustrated yesterday by series of articles reporting on Liberal leader Bob Rae's demand that Stephen Harper resign over the F-35 issue. My frustration wasn't specifically aimed at Rae or the Liberal party, but more broadly at our political culture where the first instinct of all of our opposition parties, federal and provincial, whenever the government does anything they strongly disagree with, is to demand the resignation of the relevant minister and/or the Premier or Prime Minister. I overstate my case slightly here for emphasis, but it often seems that not a week goes by when some minister or another isn't being called on to resign. This isn't to say that sometimes ministers - or even governments - do not resign, but it's pretty darned rare. This has set my mind to wondering how often a resignation actually does occur, and what circumstances prompt it.

In case anyone really wonders about my own thought processes, my first personal memory of a demand for a ministerial resignation was as a 12-year old budding news junkie in 1989. The scandal in question involved federal finance minister Michael Wilson. Wilson, the opposition parties charged, had leaked the entire federal budget to the media a day before it was scheduled for release. Did Wilson resign? Heck no! He'd stay in that portfolio for two more years, and in Cabinet until he retired from politics.

Yesterday evening, I put out a call on Twitter for examples of successful calls for ministerial resignations. I could think of Sheila Copps, who resigned both from Cabinet as Deputy PM and her seat in 1996 when her party failed to abolish the GST. She ran in a by-election, won again, and was promptly re-appointed to her old position. Were there others? Alfonso Gagliano, the key minister implicated in the sponsorship scandal, was defended by Jean Chretien for a while, and then eventually appointed ambassador to Denmark.

A grad student in my department, Mark Sholdice, helpfully provided the following list of ministerial resignations from the past 15 years or so: Maxime Bernier, Helena Guergis, Lawrence MacAulay, Andy Scott, Judy Sgro, Art Eggleton. It's interesting to do a bit of dissection of these cases. In most of them, there were pending allegations of influence peddling or conflict of interest. Another involved a potential breach of national security. And what were the ultimate results of these resignations? Both Bernier and Scott eventually found their way back into Cabinet. Eggleton was appointed to the Senate. Sgro and MacAulay have since been re-elected a number of times. Poor Helena Guergis, denied a soft landing...

If we go back far enough, there have been major changes wrought by demands for ministerial or governmental resignations. In 1935-36, when Maurice Duplessis and the Union Nationale - as a newly formed opposition party - were able to seize control of Quebec's Public Accounts Committee, they were able to expose massive corruption by the Taschereau government, then tie up the legislature and force the resignation of the government. The Pacific Scandal of 1873 (coupled with the arrival of new MPs from PEI) forced the resignation of the government of John A. MacDonald. This isn't really my area of major research interest, but it strikes me that there could be a really interesting book written about ministerial resignations and political scandals in Canada. My working hypothesis is that there were usually pending criminal charges or obvious corruption and influence peddling before ministers actually gave in to opposition pressures to resign. Minor rule-breaking or past dalliances (see: Andre Boisclair's cocaine habit) probably don't cut it most of the time.

All of which leads back to my original frustration. My concern is that if ministerial resignations are in fact quite rare, and almost always linked to allegations of abuse of power or corruption, then is an excessive use of the political tool of demanding a ministerial resignation (with the accompanying media coverage) desensitizing voters? Will we hit a point where there are cases where a minister really should resign because of criminal activity or abuse of power, but the public is so inured to these calls for resignation over more minor issues that a major case can be swept easily under the rug by a Prime Minister who wants to keep that minister (bearing in mind that sometimes a PM might accept the resignation because they simply don't care to bother defending them)? Could we argue that this has already occurred?

When politics devolves into routine theatre and constant braying for attention, I fear that the public tunes out. And given the current state of voter engagement, that should be a huge concern for us all.

ETA: As a matter of curiosity, I'd welcome other examples of successful demands for ministerial resignations, and the nature of the scandal that prompted the demands.

Thanks to Andrew Ross, a link to the Parliament of Canada's official list of ministerial resignations. I might have to go searching for provincial equivalents.

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