The PM as dictator
The ultimate Harper insider on a theory of concentrated power
In 2007, about a year after he became prime minister, Stephen Harper shared some thoughts on his progress in office with Rex Murphy, then the host of CBC Radio’s Cross Country Checkup. “Probably the most difficult job—you know, [a] practical, difficult thing you have to learn as a prime minister—and ministers, our ministers as well—is dealing with the federal bureaucracy,” Harper said. “It’s walking that fine line of being a positive leader of the federal public service, but at the same time pushing them and not becoming captive to them,” he added. “I could write a book on that one.”
Ever since then I’ve wished he would write that book. Harper was an outsider, by temperament and ideology, to a lot of common Ottawa assumptions. He had already made it clear, before he became prime minister, that he didn’t view the federal public service as a neutral enabler. In the last days of the 2006 campaign, he had sought to allay fears of a Conservative majority government by promising that he wouldn’t get his way on big questions even if he controlled most of the seats in the House of Commons.
“The reality is that we will have, for some time to come, a Liberal Senate, a Liberal civil service—at least at the senior levels where they’ve been appointed by the Liberals—and courts that have been appointed by the Liberals,” he said. “These are obviously checks on the power of a Conservative government.” His goal was to reassure voters by saying he’d be condemned to share power no matter what. Probably he was the opposite of reassuring.
Either way, Harper’s book about pushing, and not becoming captive to, bureaucrats would have been fascinating to read. Of course he never wrote it, and probably won’t. So we are left with a new book from a close proxy—Harper’s first chief of staff, Ian Brodie—that covers much the same ground.
At the Centre of Government is not a tell-all insider account. Brodie, who is fifty, is a political scientist by trade. He studied at McGill and the University of Calgary, and taught at Western University for a few years before leaving for Ottawa to help Harper. He is back at Calgary’s political science department. His book is an argument about the nature of power in Canadian federal politics, not only under Harper but in general.
It opens with a commonly heard claim about prime ministers, one I heard many times before Harper held the position and still hear about his successor: “Canada’s prime minister is a dictator.” The rest of the book seeks to disprove the claim, or where it can’t be disproven—here it’s abundantly clear that prime ministers, and not only Harper, have held the whip hand in government after government—to explain why it had to be thus. It’s part rebuttal, part justification. The tone is brightly optimistic, which will not surprise readers who have met Brodie, but may not match most people’s expectations of a dispatch from the Harper years. “My time in politics filled me with awe and wonder at the form of government we have inherited from our ancestors and the pages that follow are my effort at sharing what I found,” Brodie writes.
Throughout his book, Brodie keeps referring to three texts by earlier theorists of prime ministerial power in Canada. His witnesses for the prosecution are Donald Savoie, the New Brunswick academic whose 1999 book Governing from the Centre is a classic of the genre, and Jeffrey Simpson, the Globe and Mail columnist whose 2001 bestseller The Friendly Dictatorship popularized many of Savoie’s arguments. Both argued that Canada is at best a simulacrum of democracy: the cabinet rubber-stamps the prime minister’s decisions, the governing caucus of MPs is a bunch of trained seals, the lot of them depend on the prime minister, as party leader, for authorization to run and therefore to keep their seats in Parliament.
To respond to these charges, Brodie cites a range of scholars, earlier practitioners of government, and his own experience. His favourite witness for the defence is Eddie Goldenberg, who was briefly Jean Chrétien’s chief of staff and, for many years before that, his chief policy advisor. Goldenberg’s 2006 memoir, The Way It Works, is a bluntly realistic endorsement of the Savoie-Simpson thesis with none of the handwringing. Brodie disagrees a couple of times with Goldenberg’s reasoning, but not often. He shares a kinship across party lines with his predecessor. Unlike Savoie and Simpson, Brodie and Goldenberg have actually been at the centre. In Brodie’s words:
Coordination ‘isn’t something sinister,’ Goldenberg writes. The centre has to ensure the government gets its arguments out to the public. It has to provide the prime minister with blunt advice…It has to herd by keeping track of where ministers are travelling. It has to make appointments to public offices, although this is almost a no-win job. It has to act as a gatekeeper so the prime minister is not overloaded. And everyone at the centre must be wary about what they say, in case a casual comment is seen by a minister or public servant as a command from the boss.
Brodie lists four domains of government action in which direct intervention by the prime minister or his staff is usually necessary. First is the setting of big fiscal priorities, like whether to run a deficit or where to raise or lower taxes. This engages the very personality of a government, whether it is stingy or grandiose, ally of the swells or of the little guy. Second is foreign policy: “When presidents of the United States call…they do not call the foreign minister.” Third is relations with the provinces, at least insofar as when a premier picks a fight with Ottawa, she does not let herself be foisted off on a junior minister either. Fourth is Parliament, where prime ministers have sometimes been astonished to discover they do not have enough support to govern.
All of this seems fair to me. But it’s worth acknowledging that once you’ve conscripted Eddie Goldenberg as an ally and marked off money, the world, the federation, and the Commons as legitimate fields of prime ministerial supremacy, you’ve given the prime minister a lot of elbow room. To the claim that the PM is a dictator, the three possible responses are, “I agree, and it’s awful;” “No he’s not;” and “Sure he is, and what of it?” In these early chapters, at least, Brodie leans heavily on the third response.
Here and elsewhere, Brodie brightens his argument with illustrative anecdotes from his own time in government. These are gold, because the Harper years were lean years for insider anecdotes, and because Brodie takes real pleasure in telling his stories. Stéphane Dion in particular comes in for a keelhauling. As Liberal leader, Dion was drawn into the debate over whether to extend Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. Harper appointed John Manley, a former Liberal deputy prime minister, to research and write a report on the matter. It recommended extending the mission, subject to tough conditions. Liberal MPs were divided on whether to support the extension. So much so that they seem to have found it easier to take their quarrels to the governing Conservatives than to settle them internally: “At times I was drawn into those debates through backchannels,” Brodie writes.
Finally Harper invites Dion to a meeting. “I soon realized that the Liberal leader had not brought a position to the meeting, or even a starting point for the negotiations,” Brodie writes. The meeting is saved because Harper has stipulated that House leaders must be present, and the Liberal House leader, Ralph Goodale, eventually steps in to negotiate terms. Brodie is convinced Dion would never have gotten around to it. To him, Dion “has only one tool in his political toolbox—the polemical argument.”
This matches everything I know about Dion. Some of Brodie’s other claims, elsewhere, are stretchers. “Every member of the Harper Cabinet was a thoughtful, independent person,” he writes. Really? This flatters several of his ministers. Even the ones who were thoughtful and independent didn’t always get far. Brodie claims that Harper’s decision to embrace, with amendment, a Bloc Québécois motion calling Quebec a “distinct nation” “should not have come as a surprise” to any of his ministers. It’s Brodie’s way of justifying Harper’s failure to consult or even inform his own intergovernmental affairs minister, Michael Chong, before Harper introduced the Québécois nation motion. It’s bold of Brodie to claim the move should have surprised nobody. It’s closer to the truth to say nobody could have predicted it. Opposing special status for Quebec had been a central feature of Harper’s political career to that point. When Harper pulled a U-turn for tactical purposes, he left his own minister hanging.
Examples like this make Brodie most persuasive when he justifies central control rather than listing the limits on such control. Do prime ministers, in their role as party leaders, keep tight control over who gets to run as candidates for their parties? Well, yeah, Brodie says, and a good thing too: “The work that party staff do to keep wife-beating, drug-dealing goons from getting elected to Parliament is an essential public service.” I wish there were more details. God, do I wish there were more details. Sorry, no such luck.
Does partisanship blind party members to the excesses of their leaders? Sure, Brodie says in one of the book’s most unexpectedly lyrical passages. But partisans gain so much more than they lose by pooling their efforts; “Parties need partisans, and partisans are citizens who are motivated, in part, by partisanship. Not every citizen is suited to being a partisan. Some people are just loners…But people who cannot find a way to work with their fellow citizens will have little impact on the collective life of the community.”
Brodie’s frank defence of central control is what’s most bracing about his book, because it’s so rare that we get to read such a defence. But of course no prime minister enjoys absolute power. It was fashionable for a few weeks after Harper won his first majority government in 2011 to say that now there would be no constraint on his ability to get things done. Before too long, he found the ultimate constraint: the voters, who turfed Harper’s Conservatives at the next opportunity.
But even before then, Harper discovered a majority isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In 2012, Brodie notes, Harper’s government introduced Bill C-30, the so-called Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act. It would have granted police forces warrantless access to some Canadians’ online accounts. The day after the bill was introduced, Conservative MP John Williamson told reporters the bill was “too intrusive as it currently stands.” That opposition, from Harper’s own party, stopped the bill in its tracks. The Harper government eventually dropped it.
I have colleagues who’ve had rewarding careers lamenting what they see as a fundamental lack of democracy in Canada. And yet the democracy keeps emitting signs of life. Parties replace their leaders on short notice. Electorates replace one party in power with another that disagrees with the first on big questions. Leaders who start to take their jobs for granted don’t last. Reasoned critiques of our politics are needed, but so are reasoned defences. Probably when Ian Brodie went off to Ottawa to help make Stephen Harper the prime minister, he wasn’t expecting he’d memorialize that feat of insurgency with a book about how well the system works. But life is full of surprises.