Thursday, October 29, 2009

Returning respectability to Political Science

The exposition of Political Science in the main stream media has has been dominated of late by the space inexplicably donated by the Globe and Mail to the Unctuous One. This has resulted in a regrettable degradation in the image of this discipline.

Thankfully there are some real Political Scientists left. Such as Peter Russell, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Toronto. He recently delivered the eighth Templeton Lecture at the University of Manitoba. And, like me, he is still upset at the craven depths Harper was willing to go to save his government from defeat. Or at least that is the impression I get reading this Frances Russell piece:
The constitutional positions taken by the Conservatives during last fall's parliamentary showdown could plunge Canada into a serious constitutional crisis, one of Canada's leading political scientists warns.

Peter Russell, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Toronto, believes any one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's three key public statements last November would change Canada from a parliamentary democracy into a populist democracy.

During that climactic week, Harper said the opposition "does not have the right to take power without an election." Then he said all coalitions must first be presented to the electorate during an election campaign. Finally -- and in Russell's view, most troubling -- Harper claimed the Governor General cannot exercise the Crown's traditional reserve power to call on another party to form a government should an existing government fall on a vote of confidence and must instead automatically grant the prime minister dissolution and another election.

That final declaration "raises the most serious problems for Canada's parliamentary democracy," Russell said in Winnipeg Oct. 15. He was delivering the eighth Templeton Lecture sponsored by the University of Manitoba political studies department.

"Mr. Harper's view that only the electorate can effect a change in government across party lines would, in effect, take away Parliament's role in the formation of government."


Canada, one of the world's oldest parliamentary democracies, "is fast becoming a basket case -- the banana republic of the parliamentary world," Russell continued.

He urged Canada to follow New Zealand's example.

Canada's parliamentarians, he said, should strike a parliamentary committee and seek all-party written agreement on the principles of responsible (to Parliament) government, the role of the Governor General and the calling of elections.

In contrast to the presidential/congressional model, where the president's mandate comes directly from the people, as does that of Congress, voters in parliamentary democracies do not elect either a government or a prime minister. They elect a popular house, "the peoples' house of parliament," Russell said. And the licence to govern rests in "commanding the confidence" of that house.

Canada's parliamentary dysfunction arises from three factors, Russell continued. Citizens are poorly educated about their parliamentary government while swamped daily with blanket media coverage of the U.S. separation of powers system. Politicians are hardly better informed. They all regard minority governments as "unfortunate and temporary interludes" between majorities.

Finally, Canadians and their politicians cling to a "first-past-the-post" electoral system that rewards regionalism and sectionalism in an already dangerously regionalized nation....

Perhaps the most unfortunate casualty of last fall's crisis was the very idea of coalition government itself, Russell said. And Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff shoulders equal blame with Harper. Ignatieff dropped the coalition "like a pair of smelly socks" after he became Liberal leader.

Canadian parliamentary democracy cannot afford this "smearing" of coalitions, Russell continued. "A country like ours in which no single political party is very popular and voter choice is divided among five or more parties is likely to produce parliaments in which no party has a majority. In minority parliaments, alliances between parties are essential to make Parliament functional."

Noting that the distance between the parties on most issues is not huge, Russell said combining with other parties does not mean "selling the soul of what a party stands for."

Rather, it enhances democracy, creating "policies that can be supported by parties representing a majority of the people," he continued. "And isn't that what democracies should be all about?"

Isn't it refreshing to hear a political science professor eager to teach about politics rather than use a bully pulpit to advance an agenda inimical to Canada and it's history?

I often wonder which of the travesties Harper has imposed on Canada has been the worst and will cause the most long term damage. Quite often I come back to the Prorogation Crisis as the most calamitous. My thanks go out to Professor Russell for trying to mitigate the damage by speaking out and educating people about the nature of our political structures.

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Mark Francis said...

The arguments I got into with people trying to tell me that Harper's government could not be replaced without an election, because the 38% of voters who bothered to vote voted Conservative, and this represented a democratic decision overriding the will of the other 62%.


In practice, most people had no idea what was going on.

realtor in Vancouver said...

That's the usual, most of people who vote don't have a clue what they're voting for and are influenced by simple things that have nothing to do with politics.

Take care, Jay