Centralization of federal party powers, leaving the grassroots to burn

First published: October 11, 2004

The discussion of pan-Canadianism in David E. Smith’s article Party Government in Canada – and the analysis of it in Ties that Bind, by James Bickerton, et. al. – explains the evolution of the link between government and citizens and how the relationship is now more centralized, controlled by an elite few, with diminished regard for the diversity of ideas and visions for the country. While the authors in Ties that Bind give us an analysis up to the period of Brian Mulroney and the 1993 election, which nearly wiped out the federal Progressive Conservatives; it would be an interesting exercise to extend this analysis to the Liberal governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.

If Smith is right, the governing party determines Canada’s political development. He argues prime ministers before 1914 were nation builders, but simultaneously kept very strong local ties under the influence of the middle class and professionals. From here, subsequent prime ministers and power structures would evolve further and further away from these local roots to create a system where individual Canadians, regions and interests would dissolve into a “single political community”, as described in Ties that Bind.

Rather than the unifying and broadening effects of increased local debate, which Smith calls for at the end of his essay, the most recent governing parties have moved still further from the party grassroots. Now more than ever, the current system centralizes power in the prime minister’s office, with backbench members of parliament and local constituencies having less and less influence. Pollsters, insiders and handpicked academics, rather than constituency members, determine policies. Local party membership is extremely low between elections and members are rarely active until nomination meetings or the election writ is dropped. Suddenly, the party ranks swells as candidates go on a membership blitz to win the nomination, soliciting members who have little regard to party policy or ideology. In between elections, annual policy conventions are little more than social occasions for stalwarts to hobnob rather than serious policy discussions aimed at mapping out a direction for the party. This would be especially true for governing parties, who display less regard for local or regional members because they hold power and have the backing of the entire civil service to help develop policy. Compare this to those not in power, and those parties are often are more anxious to keep members happy by involving them in party business than face declining core support.

Chrétien moved to entrench power inside the prime minister’s office, keeping only a few close friends, advisors and pollsters to guide his actions. Cabinet was filled with loyalists, leaving backbenchers with little or no input. Even key institutional positions were filled with patronage appointments of the prime minister’s allies. Those working in the PMO guided the tightly orchestrated agenda, with the prime minister’s blessing. We only have to look at the current investigation into the advertising scandal to see the inner workings of this system. It was also exemplified after the 1995 constitutional crisis when the federal government won. Chrétien often displayed total disregard for regional interests, scoffing at Ontario, Quebec and Alberta as they vied for more provincial autonomy.

Martin has done little to remedy this, despite a leadership campaign and an election where he espoused his concerns about the democratic deficit. Scholars like Donald J. Savoie, in his book Breaking the Bargain, express deep concern Martin will be able to overcome the current system. This concern is echoed by Graham Fraser, in his Sunday column in the Toronto Star (Oct. 10, 2004), where he states there have been two examples of Martin’s style, which demonstrate a clear weakness . At both the health-care summit and the throne speech last week, Martin tried to impose his government’s agenda, only to scramble to negotiate an eleventh-hour disaster. Fraser points out the Liberals failed to fully consult and underestimated the regional opposition in both cases.

Smith might argue both men are stuck in a pan-Canadian perspective, where they are putting the national interest before all others. But, as we have recently witnessed, that may be impossible, particularly with a minority government. With a special deal for Quebec during the health care summit and the non-confidence vote of last week, regional and localize interests are going to be forced upon the government. This still does not address Smith’s vision for a revitalized grassroots approach, but he might take solace that the governing party is moving in the right direction by looking to be more consultative, even if it is only with opposition parties. Local party activists may also find a few crumbs as Martin’s government may be a forced to revisit brokerage politics in an attempt to poach voters to win a majority in the next election.

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