Democratizing the Constitution - Reforming Responsible Government
Peter Aucoin, Mark D. Jarvis, Lori Turnbull - 2011

Canada's time-honoured system of responsible government is failing us. This principle, by which the executive must be accountable to the people's elected representatives, was fought for and won over 160 years ago, but we now see that achievement slipping away. Our constitution and its unwritten conventions no longer provide effective constraints on a prime minister's power. The result: a dysfunctional system, in which the Canadian constitution has degenerated into whatever the prime minister decides it is, and a Parliament that is effectively controlled by the prime minister, instead of the other way around.

This timely book examines recent history and ongoing controversies as it makes the case for restoring power to where it belongs — with the people's elected representatives in Parliament.

This book has been designed to meet the needs of courses on Canadian politics, as it gives special attention to explaining the institutions and concepts involved, as well as the fascinating history that has led to present day conflicts over our constitutional state of affairs. Its offering of proposals to address the problems it outlines will also make it a must-read for political observers and interested citizens across the country.


· Canadian system of parliament faces fundamental problems that have been allowed to undermine Canadian democracy.

The prime minister now wields too much power
over the operation of the House of Commons.

The House of Commons is the parliamentary assembly of the people’s elected representatives, the pre-eminent democratic institution of representative government.

Unconstrained power in any form of government inevitably leads to the abuse of power. When power is abused, democracy is diminished.

The PM wields too much power over his party MPs and caucus.

PMs like Harper who violate the spirit of the constitution… are prepared to to violate the norms of behaviour… because of their obsession with winning and holding power.

“We persist in structuring the governing team like a military regiment under a single commander with almost total power to appoint, discipline, and expel subordinates.” Harper / Flanagan 1997

• Harper left his original Conservative party for the Reformers who were ardent critics of what they saw as excessive party discipline in the House of Commons – especially prime ministerial control over the party MPs.

• In almost all respects the Canadian PM has greater constitutional and political power than in the case of Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

“Information is the lifeblood if democracy. Without adequate access to key information about government policies and programs, citizens and parliamentarians cannot make informed decisions, and incompetent or corrupt government can be hidden under a cloak of secrecy.” 2005 Opposition Leader, Stephen Harper

• Stephen Harper also introduced the fixed election date legislation passed by Parliament, but it was deficient… leaving a major loophole that could be exploited by a prime minister acting in bad faith, doing nothing to constrain his power.

• With few exceptions the influence of the PMO has become the most important in the exercise of power. The ability of the PMI to speak for the prime minister has taken the blurring of the government and the partisan political spheres to new levels.

Reform Political Parties
• restore the power of party caucus to dismiss the party leader, including a sitting prime minister, and to appoint a new interim leader

• remove the party leader’s power to approve or reject party candidates for election in each riding … would remove the power of the prime minister to sanction “disloyal” MPs who wish to seek re-election and make the selection of local candidates more democratic by keeping it at the local level

Conclussion: Democratizing our constitution and parliamentary system of governance demands change. The concentration of powers… cannot be permitted to remain in the hands of a single individual who is able to undermine democratic governance at his or her will… relying on an unelected official, the governor general, as the sole safeguard against the abuse of power, even if we had a widely agreed upon understanding of how our system is to work – which we don’t – does not belong in a robust contemporary democracy.