Dr. John Hollins, Past Chair, Canadian Club of Rome, Book review.
Donald J. Savoie
Democracy in Canada: The Disintegration of Our Institutions
McGill-Queen’s University Press 2019
Donald Savoie observes that Canada possesses the building blocks of representative democracy: universal suffrage by secret ballot, a competitive
party system, a free press, a professional public service, and an independent judiciary. He finds, however, that the system has been drifting for so
long that it no longer works effectively. He argues that what is needed to repair Canada’s institutions is political will: acceptance that during the past
few decades too much power has relentlessly been concentrated into the hands of a single individual and a handful of courtiers.
Pierre Trudeau famously said in 1969 that Members of the Opposition, when they are 50 yards from Parliament Hill, are no longer honourable members —they are just nobodies. Savoie concludes that by the 21st century, both governmental and opposition Members of Parliament have become nobodies on Parliament Hill. Government MPs are constrained to discharge the dictates of the Prime Minister’s Office. Cabinet, he writes, is no longer a forum for debate and collective decision-making, rather it is a sounding board for the Prime Minister, who calls the shots.
Canada’s vast geography and substantial regional differences require that national decisions be fully informed by regional considerations. The role
assigned to the Senate at Confederation was to represent the regions in national decision-making. The Supreme Court of Canada pointed out that
“the smaller provinces only consented to Confederation on the understanding that there would be a regional Upper House2”.
The Senate has been side tracked: its primary role has become a house of sober second thought. (Although, through the work of its committees, the
Senate serves as a think tank and creates original thought.) For decades, the Cabinet of the government included powerful Ministers to represent
their regions in decision-making; that practice was suspended in 2015.
Savoie describes the Senate as the institution that never was. He cites Senator Percy Mockler, Dean of the Senate, who observed that Senate
recommendations to modernise and depoliticise the pipeline approval process were ignored, the history of the Senate according to Savoie.
Savoie concludes that political will, not constitutional amendments, could reinstate the House of Commons as the only legitimate voice that can
speak for all of Canada’s communities and can turn the Senate into the voice of the regions. Similarly, political will is all that is needed to make
Cabinet the government’s policy-making-body, where all important issues are brought for resolution, rather than serving as a body to simply ratify decisions taken by prime ministers and their courtiers. As an example of political will, Savoie reminds us that Pierre Trudeau successfully pursued his
determination to repatriate the constitution with single-minded purpose. It can be done.
2020 October 31
1 Donald J. Savoie is Canada Research Chair in public administration and governance à
l’Université de Moncton.
2 Supreme Court of Canada, Reference re: Legislative Authority of Parliament in Relation to
the Upper House , SCR 54 at 10. (reference from Notes)