Archive for October, 2009

The Wild Rumpus and Other Preoccupations

The academics I know are talking about the movie made from Maurice Sendak’s book for children. I type Where the Wild Things Are into Google and quick as a wink turn up academic articles on the book. The first one I open has three authors, notes, tables, the whole scholarly apparatus. But in our household today – and in most others, I guess – it’s the movie that’s on the agenda.

  • S. The Wild Things? The book is perfection.
  • J. And the movie?
  • S. Enjoyable, lovely to look at.
  • J. Not perfection?
  • S. Perfection is an underappreciated virtue these days.

The younger generation is talking about Sudoku for two. Two persons working on one puzzle, filling in the squares, giving reasons for their decisions. I’m intrigued. Two people, two pencils. (Who gets to wield the eraser?) Two bending over one small piece of paper. In one armchair? Hmm. Sounds cozy!

The great leaf show is on. In the mornings we rush to the windows to see the new developments in the park across the road.  Today I hear that my neighbourhood association is proposing to build tennis courts in the park. (That is, they’re demanding that the city build courts.) The problem is that tennis courts require high mesh fences. The gorgeous long view through the trees from our front windows and front porch will be obscured. I don’t know what to do. Should I summon up reserves of indignation (running low as I get older) and fight it out at the upcoming meetings? Or smile through my tears and wish the health buffs well? They tell me that the pavement will be coloured a pleasant green. To blend in, you know. The mesh fence will be green.


C.B. Macpherson Prize

The Canadian Political Science Association has announced the ninth biennial competition for the C.B. Macpherson Prize: “The prize was established to honour the life and work of Crawford Brough Macpherson (1911-1987), an internationally renowned teacher and scholar of political theory who served as University Professor at the University of Toronto. The Canadian Political Science Association seeks to encourage the ideals of scholarship represented by this great Canadian political scientist.”

Yes. Macpherson was an eminence. I can understand why the CPSA felt no need to remind us that he never relinquished his admiration for Soviet and African totalitarianisms. I can understand that they did not feel required to point out that he believed these forms of representative democracy as good as or indeed superior to Canada’s liberal democracy. It cannot appropriate to raise such matters in the short biography of a great political scientist.

Banish from your thoughts the millions of state murders in the African one-party democracies and the millions upon millions of state murders in the Soviet Union.

I remember an occasion in the late 1970s on which Macpherson was describing the signal features of the Soviet system. I was then well into the research for my doctoral thesis and steeped in Lord Durham’s account of “responsible government,” the constitutional principle that requires the party in office to answer to the majority in the elective chamber of parliament. As Macpherson continued his exposition of representative soviets, the question was on my lips: “How is the government of the Soviet Union made to answer for its decisions?” But I said nothing. Nor did anyone else in the crowded lecture room.

Frank Cunningham’s book on Macpherson’s political thought is expected soon. It is one to watch for.

Moore Live-blogging the Quebec Conference

Don’t miss this, friends. While I’ve been swanning around, going to the theatre, walking in the fall woods, someone has been minding the store.

From October 10th, Christopher Moore has been live-blogging from the Quebec Conference of 1864! It’s great stuff. I think there’s a book in the works.

Stratford Observations

Apologies East and West: this is a blog for central Canada. The world’s largest reparatory theatre is in Ontario.

  • What’s happening in Stratford under the new management? The Festival is back in the red. Richard Monette balanced his budgets. He was proud of it; he published his financial statements in the general program guide. He survived bad-weather seasons, economic downturns, the high Canadian dollar; he restored the three major theatres and built a new one; he started an ambitious new theatre school. And still came out in the black. He used to boast about how little money he received from the various levels of government. He boasted about not getting grants! Under the management of Antoni Cimolino and Des McAnuff it’s back to the old ways. They’re in the red and whining about how little they get from the province and the feds. There’s no financial statement in the program guide for 2009.
  • Monette cracked the whip on play directors who betray the playwright. In the Festival’s distant past – before Monette; I’m writing from memory – directors sometimes used the script as excuse to show off their personality – their cherished, brilliant selves. (Imagine Love’s Labour’s Lost done by actors encased in red plastic boxes. I am exaggerating only slightly.) I admit that Monette lost a few battles with directors, but in general as long as he was in charge we saw the plays as written by Shakespeare, or Racine or Chekhov. Performances might be innovative, astonishing, unexpected, but you  knew you were seeing the real thing. The story lines were clear; the human situations were, well, human. A person who had never before seen one of the “Henry” plays, or read one, someone who knew nothing about English history, could still come away from the show with a marvelous appreciation of what had been happening during the “two-hour’s traffic” of the stage. Monette was something of a miracle and now he’s gone. He was Director of the Festival from 1994 to 2007.
  • There were good experiences this year. The best? Perhaps West Side Story. I remember the complaints about the Festival’s decision to mount Broadway shows. People said that Monette was only doing it for the money and that in any case the Americans would stay away because they could see better productions at home. Now one hears Americans saying that Stratford does the shows better than Broadway. (And they’re such good shows, aren’t they!) It makes a difference that the Broadway productions are done in the Festival Theatre on the famous Shakespearian thrust stage. Jerome Robbins’ choreography looked fabulous. The energy of the thing!
  • The Ben Jonson play was a downer. Oh, those poor women gulled into prostitution; and the wretched young men who do their best to keep up a façade of enjoying themselves while being robbed blind and subjected to one humiliation after another. The play’s called Bartholomew Fair, and everyone’s there to have a great day; the players race around the stage, singing, dancing, eating, buying, selling. They practically kill themselves laughing. And they all end up shabbier, unhappier, poorer. And do you know? The audience is made to look shabby too: cheap, dirty. Of course there was lots of applause; it was a play after all; great costumes, surprising effects. But I think some people left the theatre with a sour taste in their mouth. If we didn’t admit it, it was because we were afraid of being laughed at. One goes to the theatre – one goes to a fair – to have a good time.
  • For years critics begged Stratford to do Shakespeare’s contemporaries, especially Jonson. A few years ago we saw The Alchemist; it was not a success. This year it was Bartholomew Fair and now I for one am convinced that there’s a reason why Jonson is done so seldom. There’s a kind of theatre, present in Shakespeare’s day and still current in ours,  that thinks it’s a playwright’s job to show us how despicable, gullible and downright hopeless humans are. Shakespeare knew how to do it. But in Shakespeare’s plays we see other dimensions of the human spirit too.
  • We had a lift to Stratford on our last visit this year and went by highway 403. I had no idea a highway could be so beautiful. Rolling farmlands right and left. No wayside buildings. No overhead wires. And best of all, an endless broad wild garden of gold, mauve, white, deep purple on either side of the road; mile after mile. I used to take highway 5 or 8, under the impression that old roads are bound to be more picturesque. I was wrong. It’s the 403 West for me from now on. I have seen the future and it works.

Responsible Government in 1867

In response to my blog last week on the article in the current APSR referring to Canada as a country that does not have a written constitution, Andrew Smith writes:

“Does Canada have a written constitution? According to a recent article in the American Political Science Review by James Fink, Canada’s constitution is entirely customary or unwritten. As political scientist Janet Ajzenstat points out, Canada has a written constitution. I would add, however, that the unwritten parts of the Canadian constitution are more important than the written documents. This is probably what Fink meant to say.”

Professor Smith is no doubt thinking of “responsible government,” the constitutional principle that defines parliamentary systems. It is commonly said that in the Canadian Constitution, “responsible government” rests on an unwritten constitutional convention.

Thus Peter Russell writes (Constitutional Odyssey, page 26): “[The Fathers of Confederation] saw no need to spell out the democratic principle that government be directed by ministers who have the confidence of the elected branch of the legislature … The principle of responsible government would continue to depend on unwritten constitutional convention. The only hint of responsible government in the final constitutional text is the reference in the preamble to the BNA Act to a ‘Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.’”

But Russell’s wrong. Smith’s wrong.

The prevailing view in political science is wrong. The British North America Act, now called the Constitution Act (1867), describes and guarantees “responsible government.” To repeat; “responsible government” is entrenched in words in the 1867 Act. (Admittedly the term is not used, perhaps because in the 1860s it was only sometimes employed to refer to parliamentary government; it could describe a more republican system, or indeed any form of government of which a speaker or writer approved.)

Let me direct readers to sections 53 and 54 of the Constitution Act (1867). Section 53 says that money bills, that is, bills for appropriating “any part of the public revenue,” or for imposing “any tax or impost” must originate in the House of Commons. The all-important consequence of section 53 is that the government of the day cannot raise or spend money without the approval of the people’s elected representatives. In short it entrenches the principle, familiar from British history and American rhetoric of: “no taxation without representation.”

Section 54 supplies the limitation on the “no taxation” principle that distinguishes parliamentary systems from presidential ones. The House of Commons may consider only those money bills recommended to them by “message of the Governor-General,” (that is, by the Governor-General’s advisors, cabinet, the ministers; see section 13).

The effect of sections 53 and 54 is that neither the ministers nor the House of Commons can tax or spend independently. The Commons, relying on 53, may reject cabinet’s proposals, but cannot take the initiative. The ministers govern, but cannot act without the people’s approval through their elected representatives.

Voilà! Responsible government.