Archive for December, 2008

Holiday Talk

If the holidays are here can in-laws be far behind? At our house we’re thinking about topics for conversation at cocktails and the dinner table. No discussion of money, politics or sex, please. That was always my mother’s advice.

Our local newspaper nixes these openers:  “Cold enough for you? “Ready for another election?” “Still got a job?” Not appropriate for the year of woe-eight, says columnist John Wells. My neighbor tells me to stay away from climate change. “People get really shrill on that one, Janet.” So after you’ve given the appropriate greeting, hugged, kissed, taken boots and coats, produced refreshments, what do you say?

S. and J. try out a few scenarios.

S: Movies. Always a good party topic.
J: What movies?
S: Well, how about this? I’ll say that some movies can’t be remade.
J: What movies?
S: Casablanca. The Godfather.
J: There must be others. And why can’t those movies be remade?

We’re working on the script.

Last year we handed out finger puppets manufactured by The Unemployed Philosophers Collective. They’re suitable for all ages and also function as fridge magnets. Musicians mostly (Mozart, Wagner). They do get a conversation going but make holding a glass difficult and picking up butter tarts impossible.

We can always fall back on our old stand-by: anagrams. Here’s a new one: honestly mixes up to make on the sly. I’ve asked it before: who’s in charge of the English language? Do anagrams reveal The Secret Code?

For the Canadians present there’s the perennial topic: “What do you think of the changes at CBC 2?” Of course if there are children at your occasion, the conversation will delightfully take care of itself. Happy Holidays


Disposing of Leaders

Events in Ottawa have introduced Canadians to the surprising idea that a parliamentary caucus can oust party leaders. And appoint them. Mr. Dion leaves. Mr Ignatieff arrives. In the inkling of a twinkling of an eyelid!

For years Canadian political parties have chosen their leaders at well-publicized gatherings of delegates from ridings across the country: the Party Convention. Candidates for leadership assemble battalions of supporters and recite their qualifications to crowds in vast arenas. Votes are cast in a complicated balloting system; excitement builds, a winner emerges, the former party leader retires. It’s a public event, televised to the nation; it’s a grand junket, with banners and music and fun; it publicizes the party’s history, achievements, hopes, and platform.

Now we learn that all along there’s been this alternative method: parties can depose their leaders and chose them at secret meetings of the parliamentary caucus. Party members from the House of Commons and Senate gather, and after who knows what business, the deed is done. There is no official record of caucus meetings, though reporters buzzing around the event do their best to pick up rumours. No doubt there are speeches. How could there not be speeches! The little we know suggests that there’s not much fun. Selection of leaders by caucus resembles a closeted, “old-boys” affair, from the centuries when the “parliamentary party,” was the whole show. From before political parties had built “extra-parliamentary” organizations. It is a process that originated in past centuries.

Thus: selection of leaders by Party Convention looks democratic; selection by caucus does not. But there’s a reason to endorse the apparently less democratic process.

As many political scientists argue, today’s prime ministers are too independent. They begin to look like autocrats. The PM’s influence over appointments to the Senate, to boards and commissions, and, notably, to the Supreme Court enhance “presidential” powers. He can question or reject candidates put up by the local ridings. In former times he might have been reined in by strong individuals in Cabinet, ministers with local expertise and an independent reputation; but reforms introduced in the higher ranks of the bureaucracy and the Privy Council Office have humbled cabinet ministers.

The fact that a PM is chosen by Party Convention is one more factor strengthening his independence. He’s shielded from fruitful criticism. He’s less receptive to arguments emerging from the backbenches – from the women and men you voted for.

Take a second look at Christopher Moore’s essay, “Our Canadian Republic” in the November 2008 Literary Review of Canada. This is the piece in which he exposes David E. Smith’s ignorance of parliamentary history. It’s also a review of Adam Tomkins’ Our Republican Constitution, which celebrates British parliamentary democracy. Tomkins argues that members of parliament have and should have the power to hire and fire their party leaders. Here’s Moore’s summary: “The familiar confrontation between government and opposition, Tomkins urges, cannot be allowed to obscure … the opposition between Crown and Parliament, between front bench and back, or between minister and parliamentarian.”

I’m familiar with the opposition between front bench and back. It shows up in spades in Canada’s Founding Debates – the debates in the provincial parliaments on British North American union.

Re-election of Ministers, the “Dump,” & Other Matters

In June 1926, Arthur Meighen’s government was accidentally defeated. Some accident! He’d been in power only three days. (See the last blog, Have Political Scientists Failed Canada?)

At that time, as I noted, cabinet ministers were still required by law to vacate their seats on acceptance of office. Thus immediately after Meighen took the reins of power, his newly minted Ministers returned to their ridings to seek once again the electorate’s approval. Meighen tried to carry on government without them and promptly lost a vote of confidence. It could happen to anyone.

So we have the question: why were ministers supposed to seek re-election? The stipulation was abolished in 1931 and everyone on this list will be able to think of reasons. It’s considered a fine thing to be represented in Parliament by a Cabinet Minister; re-election would be almost automatic. Now it is automatic, so to speak.

Here’s Chris Moore’s explanation (1867, How the Fathers Made a Deal, Toronto, 1997):

“There was an ancient logic to this odd requirement. When kings actually ruled, parliaments existed not to govern but as a check upon the government of the Crown. Hence a parliamentarian who agreed to become an advisor to the Crown – a cabinet minister, in other words – was about to serve two masters: the king and the people. It was thought proper that he should secure the consent of his electors before doing so. As the parliament took control of government, and the king ceased to rule, the two-masters problem became moot. But constitutional usages die hard. The obligation on a new cabinet minister to seek re-election survived past confederation.” In this passage (page 21), Moore is discussing John A. Macdonald’s famous or infamous “double shuffle” in the 1850s. (Ha, ha! Thought you’d never understand the double shuffle? It’s a snap once you’ve grasped the principle of ministerial re-election.)

We’re not going to bring back re-election of ministers. But let’s suppose for the sake of argument that we could. There’s a sense in which the two-masters problem that Moore talks about is still with us. Cabinet ministers still have two masters. As members of the House of Commons they serve the people. They sit in the democratic “branch” of Parliament, the branch that represents the populace as a whole. But as Ministers they’re dedicated to the service of a political party and parties, by definition, represent only a part of the populace.

Sounds complicated. But think. The Prime Minister as Member of Parliament must keep in mind the interests of all Canadians. But as a party man, he does not speak for all. He can appeal to all; he can profess to be doing his best for all. But he’s in office only on sufferance. We can turn him out. (I hear muted shouts in the distance: “and the sooner the better.”)

Despite our having given up the requirement for re-election of ministers, the rule is still that Parliament represents all inhabitants of the country, but does not govern. (And in this fact the theorists of a previous age saw our guarantee against popular despotism.) Ministers of the Crown govern, but represent only some of the populace. Their title to rule is conditional. (And in this fact lies our guarantee against oligarchic despotism.) In short, the stipulation that ministers seek re-election was a salutary reminder of rules that secure our liberty.

Now what about the Dump, and the Other Matters? Could the Conservative caucus in Parliament “dump” Harper? Depose him as leader of the Conservative Party? Yes. Could the Liberals or the Coalition depose Dion? Yes. (And at a guess, it would be much easier to do.) A party convention is not required. More  soon.

Have Political Scientists Failed Canada?

This week’s events have got the Canadianists wringing their hands. Why does the average voter know so little about government? As one professor says on the Queen’s University chat-line: How can so many voters be upset at the prospect of a coalition assuming power when it’s perfectly within the rules of parliamentary democracy? Why do so many seem to think that it’s the electorate that chooses the prime minister? Are we failing our students?

Well, probably.

But, heck, we could just as easily say that it’s been a very good week for political scientists, the best in decades, in half a century. The phones don’t stop ringing. The networks, the local television, radio stations. Everyone needs a Canadianist. Immediately, right now. For this afternoon at the latest. Friends call me. “Janet what do you think?” “I mean, Janet, you must know what’s happening.” “Janet, come for dinner; you can tell us all about everything.” It’s delightful! I’m in demand.

Like uncounted others, I turn to the web to refresh my knowledge of the King-Byng wing-ding, which according to some scholars is relevant to our present crisis and according to others is not. Relevant or not, it’s on everyone’s mind. Will I be asked about King-Byng at dinner tonight? Not likely. Nevertheless. The first entry I call up is by Eugene Forsey. (Question: where is constitutionalist Eugene Forsey when you need him? Answer: ever present, ever ready. Dead for years, but still going strong. And more power to him.)

In 1925 Mackenzie King’s Liberals won fewer seats in Parliament than the Conservatives but remained in office with the support of the Progressives. The Conservatives had 116 seats, the Liberals, 101, and the Progressives, 24.

In June 1926, a scandal erupted. (Something to do with a rum runner in government employ; a bureaucrat with the improbable name of Bureau.) King’s prim Progressive support began to drift away. To escape a vote of censure in Parliament, King asked the Governor General, Viscount Byng, for a dissolution. Byng refused and called on Arthur Meighen as leader of Parliament’s the largest party to form the Government. But a few days later, as Forsey tells it: “Meighen’s government was accidentally defeated.” (Huh? Accidentally defeated? Whaaat happened? But let’s go on with the story.) Byng then dissolved parliament, throwing the country into an election, and for goodness sakes Mackenzie King was returned to office with a majority.

Why did King win? It appears that voters were upset that a British appointee (the Governor General, Lord Byng) had overturned their decision of 1925. King campaigned on a promise to loosen ties with the Mother Country and the promise appealed. (In those days the GG acted not only as Canada’s head of state, but also as representative of the British Government. In 1931, it was determined that the GG would continue in the former role (head of state), but not in the latter. Britain would have a High Commissioner in Ottawa. And so it is today.)

Thus we have one point to note with respect to our present situation in December, 2008: in both 1926 and 2008 the voters were/are zealously ready to defend their supposed right to “chose their prime minister.”

Now let’s think about Forsey’s contention that Meighen’s government was accidentally defeated. How do you accidentally let a Government and country slip from you grasp? In a matter of three days? I’m turning to Edgar McInnis, Canada, A Political and Social History (New York and Toronto, 1947).

Meighen, like King, required the support of the Progressives to remain in office. And like King, he managed to alienate them. “Cabinet ministers were still required by law to vacate their seats on acceptance of office – a stipulation that was not abolished until 1931 – and the retirement [of Meighen’s appointees] to seek re-election would fatally jeopardize his government. [Meighen] fell back on the device of appointing acting ministers, who drew no salaries, and took no oaths as heads of specific departments. This shift was at once attacked by the Liberals as unconstitutional and it alienated the Progressives, whose promise of support was predicated on the ability of the Conservatives to constitute a government that was regular in form. After barely three days of office the ministry succumbed to an adverse vote, and Byng was now obliged to grant to Meighen the dissolution he had refused to King. “

So what do we learn? What’s the requirement that ministers be reelected all about? To be continued …

Dissolution; Coalition

Remember Canada’s “constitutional odyssey?” It was like a long, very long, seminar in constitutional law, a difficult, required course with no prerequisites. Think of the program of study: in the “first term,” so to speak, the 1960s and 1970s, we looked at bills of rights (should Canada have one?); amending formulas (was there something wrong with Canada’s?); and the constitutional division of legislative powers. In the second term, (the 1980s) we progressed to study of constitutional conventions, constituent assemblies, “process,” “recognition,” and “ identity.” And we knew – Peter Russell kept telling us – that everything was going to be on the exam. There would be a referendum and we had to be prepared and we had to get it right. Anxious years.
It lasted for three decades. No other settled Western democracy has undertaken such a course. The troubling thing is that the more Canadians studied the law the more their respect for it decreased. Year by year, the reform agenda lengthened; year by year disagreements became more acrimonious, and many Canadians drew the conclusion that although their country’s fundamental law was indeed in need of renovation, there was no way to effect repairs. It was a discouraging idea. We would have to live with markedly defective institutions.
But there was worse. Many concluded that the original British North American Constitution must have been the product of just such a contentious process. The lesson was often generalized: making and reforming constitutions is merely a way of doing politics. “It’s all politics.” Constitutional law differs from parliamentary edicts and policies in this one respect only: that it is infuriatingly more difficult to change. By 1992, the Constitution Act (1867) – the Act that still defines Canada – no longer had the appearance of superior law. It no longer enshrined an idea of justice; it no longer expressed our common aspirations.
Now we’re at it again with a new course of study and with new terms to bone up: “dissolution,”  “coalition,” “prorogation.” We’re taking a close look representation in the legislature, and the role of the Prime Minister and the GG. King-Byng is on the course! Who would have thought? I have to say the students are eager. And taking the exam is so much easier. Just blog it! You are not facing a yes or no referendum. You can say anything, anything at all. Keep it short and get the knife in early. That’s the one rule. Don’t be boring. Let everyone know what you think about disloyal, cock-of-the-walk Westerners, latte-drinking lay-abouts in the Toronto Annex, Quebeckers who can’t wean themselves from the government teet, frogs who are bent on destroying the country – on our tab. It’s punchy stuff. And spelling doesn’t count.
I note that there’s one thing about which almost everyone enrolled agrees. Parliamentary government in its present form is indefensible. So: we learned “last year” that constitutional law is just politics. And now we know that politics is indefensible.
What am I saying? Am I suggesting that Canadians should know less about the Canadian political system? I can’t be saying that! I’ve gone wrong somewhere. Straighten up and fly right, Janet.

The John A. Signature Query

Pursuing my inquiries into the constitutional process of 1858 to 67, I consulted Sir Joseph Pope’s Confederation Documents (1895). Just pulled the book off the university library’s shelves in the ordinary way. Opened it.

And what to my wondering eyes should appear, but John A. Macdonald’s signature, in pen-nib ink – surely it was ink – splashed boldly across a loose sheet of yellowing paper on which was printed the first page of the first draft of the Canada Bill, the document that the London Conference of 1866-67 was preparing for the perusal of the British Parliament. And, yes, in the margins were hand-written revisions. John A.’s revisions. Well, I felt a flutter of excitement.

But no. The university archivist tells me that what I discovered is a reproduction. Undoubtedly of the period. The paper is right. The contents are right. Yes, I was in all probability holding a piece of paper that John A. had held at the crucial London Conference. (Pope assembled his Documents from piles of manuscripts left him by Macdonald.) And it sure looks right! But it’s a reproduction. No doubt one of many prepared for distribution at the London meetings. Who knew they had such marvelous methods of reproducing printed and handwritten manuscripts in the 1860s?

At any rate the library is not interested. Just put the volume in for reshelving, they said.

Acquisitive feelings rose. What if I eased the document out of the binding? Easy to do. It was already about to fall out. Then, let’s see. A simple frame. Simple, but expensive, of course. I know one thing about exhibiting fakes: the frame must be expensive. Museum-quality glass.

A crisp white picture mat? Or what about Tory blue? Perhaps with a beveled edge showing a “thin line” of British red? It would look great. A memento of my labours over the summer. I deserve it.

I dropped the book off at reshelving. One doesn’t cut pages out of library books. And I’m a deferential and law abiding Canadian, right?

Civil Society Reports

1. University down. One’s used to the idea that the university’s standards are falling (one hopes not at your university, your alma mater!), grades are inflating, civility is threatened, and freedom of speech, endangered. Books on these subjects pour off the presses. Blogs proliferate.

At our local institution it’s not the life of the mind that’s threatened. It’s the bricks and mortar, wiring, furnaces. Transformers blow. Light and heat fail. Classrooms close. Students are abruptly evicted from buildings.  E-mail’s an off and on thing.

A residence went up in smoke last month. But for goodness sakes, that’s attributed to arson. Arson’s in another category. It can happen even in a well-maintained and well-financed institution. No one was seriously hurt. What was notable about the event was that local residents opened their doors to displaced students. The very people who have been complaining for years about late parties, broken beer bottles, and the general chaos attendant on the attempt to civilize the new barbarians each fall, were eager to offer their spare rooms, and a place at their dinner tables.

2. Local Democracy. It used to be that the neighbourhood association newsletter offered chiefly opportunities for cleaning up the ravines. You’d spend a Saturday morning picking garbage out of streams and brush, and you’d done your local civic duty. You’d come away with new acquaintances, bit of a tan under your sun-block, a tee-shirt, and a good feeling.

Much more is required now. Or I should say that many more opportunities are open. I could go meetings two or three evenings a week: to review five-year proposals for transportation routes; park use, bike trails; tree counting, tree planting. I could staff booths at local fairs, contribute to newsletters. Join the local gang that cleans up graffiti. I could “own” my local mailbox with the responsibility for keep it graffiti-free. (Cleaning fluid supplied by the authorities.) It’s a great life. City officials get in touch by e-mail (when the server allows). I check in with the police reports for our area regularly. (Car thefts, home invasions, rowdiness, neatly tabulated and marked out in colour on a map.) A special symbol denotes a crack house.

I hear from local organizers and city officials, times, dates, agenda attached. “We need YOU to help make this happen. Hope to see you there.” At the meetings there’s a facilitator to juggle comments, sum up the thread of the argument from time to time, flatter everyone present.

I recently received (e-mail again), the draft of a twenty-five year plan for moving masses of people around our locality, and between the major cities in our area. Twenty-five years! I should live so long! I send a reply: more street-side benches, please. My contribution is gratefully received by the researchers investigating local “walkability.”