Re: “Writing About Harper,” by Andrew Coyne

Andrew Coyne is to be commended for his review of Mark Bourrie’s Kill The Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know and Michael Harris’s Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada’s Radical Makeover. He is quite right that we learn nothing from such works; they serve only as a vicarious confirmation of one’s prior views. To these two books add at least half a dozen other recent titles that fall in the same category: diatribes, with what Coyne calls an “obsessive focus on Harper.”

But unfortunately the problem goes much deeper. Beyond the psycho-therapeutic, there is another and much greater category of books that are positively misleading. All propose what I would call technical fixes to the problems of governance in Canada. All have their own engineering solutions: whether it be introducing some form of proportional representation or empowering backbench members of Parliament, or making senators accountable, or codifying conventions, or making more use of digital technology, etc. All share a fundamental belief in the tenets of liberal democracy. A good example of this type of work is Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government by Peter Aucoin, Lori Beth Turnbull and Mark D. Jarvis. Coyne himself may fall into this category as he obviously equates our system of governance with “institution[s] of democratic accountability.”

Standing out from both these political genres is Susan Delacourt’s Shopping for Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them, which is a positive response to Coyne’s question: can someone add something new to the subject? She is aware that the evils plaguing our governance system are not due to the machinations of some diabolical leader or to a particular political ideology. She has traced the tremendous transformation that has come over all major political parties in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia since World War Two. Marketing and the new science of analytics have turned all of them into monsters that are neither fish nor fowl: that live by neither the rules of the private sector or the public.

Starting from the reality described by Delacourt, the task for us in Canada should be to examine the impact that today’s political parties are having on our specific Westminster system of governance. And by that, I do not mean reciting the shibboleths of liberal democracy or democratic accountability, but rather rediscovering the rich and ancient tradition of jurisprudence that we have been fortunate enough to inherit—a tradition distinguished by the following characteristics: a normative (as opposed to a positive) concept of the rule of law; institutions of intermediation (councils, courts, Parliament and commissions) united in and under the authority of the Crown; and synthetic and responsible decision making by privy councillors and governor-in-council appointees.

 

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