Parliament’s Friends

Who knew Parliament had so many friends in academe? The anti-prorogation statement signed by 175 political scientists, philosophers and law professors last week was a necessary and helpful contribution to discussions about our national institutions. I’m glad that it was widely publicized in local and national newspapers. (Thanks to Charles, Stephen, John, Gordon, Marcos for comments on my original posting.)

Parliamentary politics is the best form of government if only for this one reason: it allows the citizenry to wholeheartedly disagree about political objectives without resorting to blows, lynchings, or outright civil war. There is the one condition, that some citizens much of the time, and many citizens some of the time, will find themselves living with laws and policies they find disagreeable or downright abhorrent.

And it’s that fact, that in a liberal democracy there will always be people with reason to complain that, “Parliament doesn’t speak for me,” which makes our job as teachers of law and politics difficult.

Our lecture halls and seminar rooms are typically filled with youngish people whose sense of justice and rectitude is just coming into flower. They’re conscious of themselves as the coming generation. They’re beginning to think of individual roles and ambitions.

And there at the head of the table or front of the auditorium is a man or woman charged with the task of convincing them that they must on occasion accept “behind-the-times” laws and decisions, made by fusty, dumb, perhaps vicious politicians.

When we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing we’re teaching our students to think with divided minds. We want them to be able to defend Parliament and the contestation of parties for office without losing political ardour. It’s a hard sell. Some professors give up. They preach a particular political ideology. They recruit.

And – let me tip my hand – on the list of 175 professors who went on record last week in defense of Parliament, there are not a few recruiters.

For years Canadian political scientists taught – some are still teaching – that this country  in contrast to the United States, is “about collective provision, and tolerance of the rules and restrictions that are justified by the need for order.” (I’m citing Charles Taylor’s essay, “Shared and Divergent Values.”) Gun control, single-payer medicare, a peace-keeping role for the Canadian military: these are issue that define the Canadian identity and in debates on these matters we can rightly expect Parliament’s role to be limited to determination of means. That was the teaching.

In a recent column Jeffrey Simpson asked whether the professors’ statement would serve as a wake-up call to Parliament. I’m asking whether signing the statement will serve as a wake up call to academics.

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8 Responses to “Parliament’s Friends”


  1. 1 Marcos Paulo Reis January 24, 2010 at 10:23 am

    Good Day Professor Ajzenstat,

    Thanks for your insightful comment on the friends of Parliament. Yesterday I had the opportunity to participate on one of the rallies. There was an atmosphere of solidarity to an institution that defines us as Canadians. I would doubt that all the members of the crowed were verse in political science or political philosophy but the idea that Canadian democracy requires a Parliament to keep the government of the day accountable was firm in their minds. Whatever was their political party affiliation.

    This brings me to the other point of your post. It may well be that Professors and historians at Canadian universities have been busy “recruiting”. I find curious the aspects that you choose to highlight. You list Gun Control, single-payer Medicare and peace keeping as spring from a political philosophy few based on collective provision and tolerance for rules as a need to maintain order. Basically you list, British Tory concepts. Or as Gad Horowitz would have it, it is the “Tory touch” on Canada’s political thought.

    The question then moves from what is the best wait to mediate conflicting political interests, I would say that we both agree that Westminster Parliament does the job rather well when its rules and conventions are followed, but what is a country for. We leave the helm of political science and arrive at political philosophy.

    Charles Taylor, which you quote on your post, uses the term “horizon of significance” to describe how citizens and society at large find its place on greater political order. In that horizon of significance actions and ideas can be contrasted and measured. If that holds true, the point would be that Canada’s “Tory Touch”, assuming one believes in the theory, is part of our horizon of significance and as such defines the frames of our discussion.

    Hence debates on gun control, health care or peacekeeping are limited on how to implemented these concepts, which would be in line with the prevalent “horizon of significance” in Canada. These concepts are in line with the ideals that Canadians chose to define themselves, based on their shared historical constructed of their horizon of significance.

    As this point I reach my limit on political philosophy so I will tread no further. But I leave you with this thought. The people on the rallies believed, consciously or not, that to be Canadian is to respect rules and conventions of Parliament. The notion was strong enough to propel them to brave the cold weather and expressed that belief. I finish with two quotes from Peter Smith from Canada’s Origins:

    “The question is not so much the distinctiveness of Canadian beliefs and attitudes as the distinctiveness of Canadian history. Canadians do have their own history, their collective memory, a critical condition for the successful participatory politics of citizenship.” Page 271

    “The critical question is not so much whether there are other ideologies, but what ideologies have been most relevant to Canada historically.” Page 276

    Have a great Sunday.

    Marcos Paulo Reis

  2. 2 john von Heyking January 24, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    3 MAJOR omissions from the list of signatories (in addition to Janet):

    Andrew Heard
    David E. Smith
    Peter Hogg

    Heard has written about his opposition to the 2008 prorogation. I don’t know his position on this.

    • 3 Marcos Paulo Reis January 24, 2010 at 4:45 pm

      Hello Jon,

      I don’t think Peter Hogg would be able to sign the document. Being the leading scholar on the Canadian Constitution and being often consulted by the Governor General in the matters would require a certain impartiallity. If Mr. Hogg were to pronounce his ideas on the matter he would have to relinquish his position as a advisor to the GG.

      What botters me most on all on this affair is the reponse from the goverment that the PM action were legal. No thought is given to the overall impact of the decision on how it corrodes our institutions.

      There is a certain vein that permiates neo-conservatism that supports that notion that if is not ilegal it can be done. I would argue neo-conservatism is incompatible with Parliament rules, conventions and procedures. Parliament, being an organic in nature, developed its practice through usage over time.

      Neo-conservatism cannot seem to be able to acknowledge that notion. The supports of the ideology do not seem to care for usages in the past or the precendent set for the future generations. It is a sad state of affairs.

      “Men are no longer bound together by ideas, but by interests; and it would seem as if human opinions were reduced to a sort of intellectual dust, scattered on every side, unable to collect, unable to cohere.”

      “It is as if the natural bond which unites the opinions of man to his tastes and his actions to his principles was now broken; the sympathy which has always been acknowledged between the feelings and the ideas of mankind appears to be dissolved, and all the laws of moral analogy to be dissolved, and all the laws of moral analogy to be abolished.”

      Alexis de Toqueville, Democracy in America

      Marcos Paulo Reis

  3. 4 john von Heyking January 24, 2010 at 7:06 pm

    GOod point about Hogg.

    I disagree this has anything to do with neoconservatism. Chretien regularly prorogued, and today I learned Bob Rae prorogued the Ontario legislature 3 times as NDP Premier. Moreover, the greatest example of lawlessness in recent Canadian political history is Adscam, which we can thank the Quebec flank of the Liberal Party for.

    The odd thing about the fuss over Harper proroguing is that s. 20 of the original BNA Act required annual proroguing. Trudeau amended it to require an annual “sitting,” which does not require resetting the agenda and the committees. He did this to give the executive greater control over the House.

    I’ve never thought neoconservatism is a useful term of analysis. For most academics, it usually refers to someone one doesn’t like. Referring to Harper as anything other than a liberal (or economic liberal) is to forget his political hero is Wilfred Laurier. That’s Chretien’s too.

    • 5 Marcos Paulo Reis January 24, 2010 at 7:29 pm

      Hello John,

      Agreed. Neoconservatism is not the best term. I should have used free-market liberalism. And I think you also hit the right note about the concentration of powers on the PMO. Leaders on the Liberal Party and on the Conservative Party have being done that. It is presidentialism by stealth.

      Regards

      Marcos Paulo Reis

  4. 6 John von Heyking January 24, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    I wouldn’t characterize the NDP government of Bob Rae as “free-market liberalism”. The concentration of powers in the political executive, which is a worldwide phenomenom, is not restricted to ideology.

    If there is an ideological component, it would be the rise of the administrative state since the 1950s, which has given law-making powers to the executive at the expense of parliamentarians. The left has contributed the loudest and largest number of cheerleaders for the administrative state, but the right has done nothing to prevent or roll back, and in fact has facilitated, its expansion.

  5. 7 Bluenose January 26, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    I was a bit surprised that CES Franks and Jennifer Smith werent on th list.

  6. 8 anonymous January 26, 2010 at 8:01 pm

    I’m not – Franks seems to be losing his mind


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