Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Canada’s second leaders debate: has Harper “Americanized” Canada?

Canadian politics silliest accusation surfaced in the French-language debate Thursday evening. Social democrat Jack Layton and Quebecois separatist Gillis Duceppe accused Stephen Harper of trying to “Americanize” Canadian politics. Imagine!
American political values and heroes have provided oxygen to Canadian progressives and liberals ever since Confederation. To invoke America now as an accusation is an ingrate’s hypocrisy. It is not off the mark, however, to say that Harper is “Americanized.” He’s no more a Tea Partier than is Governor Mitt Romney and probably closer to Obama than most other politicians in Washington. Nevertheless, his perspective on the nature of Canadian electoral politics is wholly American.
For two years and every day in this election he has insisted that the party leader that wins the most seats has the right to govern. That the people must make up their minds.  In effect, he’s assigned to the electorate the ancient prerogative of Parliament to elect governments.
This drives a handful of go-to constitutional monarchists crazy. They insist that it is wholly reasonable to imagine that after the May 2nd election the 305 new Members of Parliament freely choosing who governs—the party leader with the most seats or, in short order, the Leader of the Opposition with the help of  a combination of opposition forces. The constitution doesn’t say this is impossible and something close to this happened 84 years ago, before Canada was fully independent.
However, this vision of Parliament ignores how we practice democracy and our prevailing liberal, republican reflexes. Members of Parliament don’t spring up like tulips along the Rideau. They are certified, subsidized representatives of formal national political parties. They stand literally at the pleasure of their national leader. Voters are urged to choose one leader over the others. The media dedicates the lion’s share of its time telling us what these leaders are like because what we think of them will very much influence who we vote for as our local MP.
This de facto presidential system emerged in the election of John Diefenbaker 1958 and has hardened into common practice since. It doesn’t perfectly fit our Parliamentary system. However, that system has had bent to the “Americanized” will of the people.
Postscript: This blog suggested that the place of multiculturalism in Quebec could turn out to be tricky issue in the French language debate. In fact, all three federalist leaders avoided the issue entirely. Gilles Duceppe was not challenged on his constant reference to the “consensus” in Quebec and the national media again ignored the issue. Indeed, the only event touching on the place of minority groups in Canada that made front page news yesterday was the artless utterance of the term “ethnic costume” by a Conservative organizer in Toronto. He was fired.The leaders are all back on their scripts; election now half over, without leaving a mark. 

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