This post is part of the LRC’s 25 year anniversary project. We are asking our readers for the most influential Canadian books published in the last quarter century. For more information, click here.
Prophetic in many ways, The Friendly Dictatorship remains a crucial text on the erosion of Canadian democracy—not to mention an absorbingly readable one. Simpson’s clinical dissection of the Canadian body politic of 2001 is now of mainly historical interest: it could not foresee the simultaneous arrival of a united right under Harper (2003) and the implosion of the Liberals in the Sponsorship Scandal (2004). But his exposure of the authoritarianism of our prime ministerial government rings true even today. Indeed, after nine years of Unfriendly Dictatorship, this book provokes nostalgia for the Chrétien Kremlin.
What are the still-operative tools of prime ministerial authoritarianism? A stranglehold on a simpleminded parliamentary caucus, via the leader’s veto on renominations; unchecked power of appointment; vast resources for manipulating a culturally disengaged public; minimal accountability to the farce of Question Period; an ever-vaster, ever-creepier PMO. On a smaller scale, the same applies to party leaders. All this is driven by the TV age and its cult of personalities.
Perhaps things will now change. The altruistic new emperor has promised to restore the Republic. Simpson’s last chapter (“Now What?”) tackles electoral reform and ought to be reprinted separately as a pamphlet (he favours Australia’s Alternative Vote system). Change has been in the air, too, with Michael Chong’s Reform Act, which offered MP’s a measure of libertas. Unfortunately, the new PM’s caucus voted loyally to keep their comfy chains. On verra, our democracy stands at a crossroads, and The Friendly Dictatorship is vital to grasping how it got here.
Jack Mitchell is a poet, novelist, and Associate Professor of Roman History at Dalhousie University. His most recent book is The Ancient Ocean Blues (2008).