Waving the Flag in Distress

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Today is the one-hundred and forty-third anniversary of Canada’s Confederation and the formal birth of the country’s federal political system.

And instead of waving the flag in a perfunctory fashion (yes, I know the Queen is visiting), I’d like to wave it in distress over the present dysfunction in our federal politics by briefly singling out four serious issues in the form of a short reading list.

This is not a review or even a formal examination of the sources mentioned by any means; rather, it is an attempt to share ideas and provoke debate on a day reserved for national reflection that is seldom used to actively further a collective discourse.

While some readers will perhaps favour more drastic structural and electoral changes, I would argue that it is worth considering a few subtle alterations before entertaining more ambitious renovations.


Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s suspension of Parliament in 2008 was widely perceived as an abuse of power. When he did it again the following year, it was considered an unprecedented breach of convention and provoked considerable protest across Canada.

Since both prorogations required the consent of Governor General Michaëlle Jean, many questioned her role in permitting them. However, as Lorne Sossin and Adam Dodek’s chapter in Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis (2009) details, the governor general is not obliged to “disclose” her reasoning and there is no public record of her conversation with Harper on either occasion.

Sossin and Dodek recommend adopting a fairly recent Australian precedent, whereby the governor general’s reasons for agreeing or disagreeing with a prime minister’s request (to suspend or dissolve parliament) are shared in a brief public letter. While this will not necessarily prevent similar abuses, it may empower the (unelected) governor general to make decisions without fear of incurring a contemporary reenactment of the so-called King/Byng Affair of 1925.


Green Party leader Elizabeth May’s recent book, Losing Confidence (2009) highlights a number of parliamentary dysfunctions, including the fact that party leaders are selected almost exclusively by party members.

May suggests that parties should open their leadership elections to all Canadians, regardless of party affiliation. While any sitting MP (member of parliament) is technically able to conduct a leadership challenge if the caucus will entertain a vote — as Australia’s new prime minister, Julia Gillard did last week — May’s remedy takes into account the fact that parties do not generally tolerate such leadership challenges and will likely continue to hold extravagant leadership conventions outside of the caucus.

May also sees this as a means of encouraging more people to become involved in their political process.


Ron Graham’s Walrus (Jan/Feb 2010) essay, “The Stranger Within” follows the Liberal Party of Canada’s leadership struggle in the aftermath of Paul Martin Jr.’s fall, and his surprise succession by Stéphane Dion in 2006.

Graham explores how a handful of legacy-minded “kingmakers” have traditionally presided over party leader selection (excluding spontaneous selections like Dion). The most recent party brain-trust helped select Martin (himself the son of a three-time would-be Liberal leader), and handpicked Michael Ignatieff, the man who would replace Dion in 2008.

Dealing with legacy baggage is a problem that all parties encounter from time to time; however, it can seriously impair their ability to govern or hold the government to task in opposition.

The present success of the now united Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative Party left their seven year-old amalgamated offspring, the Conservative Party of Canada, largely free from the influence of former leaders and to campaign on a blank slate. In fact, it has let them openly quarrel with former leaders associated with the new party.

The merger between the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and the Canadian Labour Congress in 1961 that created the New Democratic Party is similar example.

In short, Graham’s article works to suggest that voters should not reward parties looking to coast on past achievements or stale solutions and ideas.


Mark Kingwell’s Walrus (March 2010) essay, “The Shout Doctrine” laments the deficit of wit, ideas, and civility in exchanges between MPs. Both obstructionism and increasingly partisan attacks have triggered a “race to the bottom” at the expense of governance and discourse, he says.

While this is to be somewhat expected and does play a role in parliamentary history (Sir John A. Macdonald’s behaviour comes to mind), Kingwell suggests that the longer this persists, the more damage it does to our political fabric and only increases the number of alienated voters.

This problem is more difficult than most but maybe there’s something to be said for writing your MP about their apparent inability to behave or play well with others. They don’t have to agree but they should at least attempt to get along.


The main reason I wanted to share a brief reading list and highlight a few problems was to encourage readers to do the same.

So, what do you think and what have you been reading about our federal political woes?

One last thing: Canada Day (or Dominion Day, until 1982) means different things to different peoples. Some celebrate a lot, others a little, while others do not — perhaps in light of different perspectives or strained relationships and the historical events from which they proceed. That’s a part of Canada’s history, too.

Still, July first is, at the very least, the belated inauguration of summer (for a northern nation) and the arrival of a cherished long weekend. So, wherever you are today and whatever you happen to be doing, enjoy.

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