Book Review: "Democratizing the Constitution" by Aucoin, Jarvis & Turnbull

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Thursday, February 02, 2012 View Count = 6036

Book Review: "Democratizing the Constitution" by Aucoin, Jarvis & Turnbull

By Bruce Hicks

Samara is pleased to present a review of Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government by Bruce Hicks, a former political strategist, journalist and publisher whose research focuses on Senate reform, the Constitution and political representation.

Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government
by Peter Aucoin, Mark D. Jarvis and Lori Turnbull
Toronto: Emond Montgomery Publications Limited, 2011, pp.ix, 260. 

The late Peter Aucoin (1943-2011), one of Canada’s great scholars on public administration and governance, teamed up with Mark Jarvis and Lori Turnbull before his death to leave Canada one last scholarly gift. Democratizing the Constitution is a thoughtful, though bleak, report on the state of this country’s democracy. What makes this book unique is that it is not another book on the centralization of government in the Prime Minister’s Office. The authors identify the source of the deficiency as the ambiguity surrounding the unwritten constitutional conventions that were left to the governor general as ‘reserve powers’ or ‘personal prerogatives’, including the power to summon, dissolve and prorogue (or suspend) parliament. They come to the unassailable conclusion that this ambiguity has allowed successive prime ministers to seize powers originally denied to any politician and undermine parliament’s capacity to hold the government to account.

The use of these powers has resulted in the silencing of parliamentary debates and inquiries, snap elections for immediate partisan gain and the domination of the Commons’ legislative and procedural agenda.  This undermines democratic accountability through the elected House of Commons – the corner stone of the Canadian system of parliamentary government. The examples offered in this non-partisan text indict Liberal and Conservative federal governments as well as all the opposition parties.

Even the breakdown in civility in the House of Commons, the book illustrates, can be tied to the constitutional conventions.  Never knowing when an election will be called, due to the capacity of the PM to dissolve parliament and the overuse of questions of confidence (the defeat on which will force an election), parties have been constantly in election mode.  Brinkmanship, tight party discipline, games of chicken, grandstanding have been common, undermining public confidence in MPs in the process, but these are only the symptoms of a larger ailment.

Following its introductory chapter, the book takes on three distinct tasks.  The first half of each of the next three chapters lays out the history, theory and legal basis, and the past and modern practices surrounding responsible government (ch.2), constitutional conventions (ch.3) and the prime ministers’ influence over the House (ch.4).  The second half of these chapters focuses on what is not clear with respect to the conventions that govern each of these aspects of Canada’s constitutional and parliamentary democracy.  This sets it apart from other books on responsible government and constitutional conventions, which tend to take a normative position in support of the existence of a specific rule.  The writing is straightforward and clear, with each chapter providing sufficient detail to stand alone as source of inquiry into that one subject.

One of many contributions to the public debate this book makes is on the question of whether elections or parliament are the democratic mechanism by which Canadians form their governments.  Contrary to the belief of many Canadians, the prime minister is not elected but rather appointed, as is the governor general, cabinet ministers, judges and senators.  Only the House is elected. The entire democratic system hinges on this one institution performing its function properly.

Since the House no longer functions as a check on the government, it is left to the people to provide a check through elections, something they illustrate in chapter five is an insufficient mechanism to hold governments to account. The populist argument is that elections are what select a government. But the authors turn this idea on its head, illustrating the limits of the logic offered by those who criticized the possibility of a Liberals-NDP had the Conservative government been defeated on a motion of non-confidence in 2008.

The book also offers a number of reforms to restore democracy to the parliamentary system, including four minor constitutional changes that could be accomplished.  But on the assumption that a constitutional amendment may not be possible, the authors suggest changes that can be made without that level of enforcement.

Democratizing the Constitution offers a comprehensive explanation and critique of responsible government, party government and constitutional conventions.  This makes it accessible to people who know little about the Canadian system of government; while still being comprehensive enough to challenge accepted notions surrounding these models held by well-informed pundits and academics. This is a ‘must read’ book for any political junky, parliamentary journalist, constitutional scholar or political science student or teacher.  I would go so far as to say that all or part this book should be required reading in every first year ‘Introduction to Canadian Politics’ course in Canada.

Bruce M. Hicks, Ph.D., Carleton University

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