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Our Prime Minister Has Too Much Power


Canada's Prime Minister has sweeping power to appoint, without review, the key people in the country's parliament, judiciary, diplomatic corps, and large stable of crown corporations. Why do otherwise-sensible Canadians accept this?

Originally published in the Globe and Mail. Republished with the permission of the author.


J. Richard Finlay

 Author Notes

Director of the Centre for Corporate and Public Governance, contributor to the National Post, Financial Post, and other journals

 Essay - 11/15/2000

Canada is well into electing a new government. Yet a fundamental issue in Canadian governance has yet to be addressed: Why is so much power concentrated in the hands of our prime minister?

If you think that's strictly a topic for political scientists, consider this: Since he came to office in 1993, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has appointed half the Canadian Senate, his own cabinet, a majority of the Supreme Court of Canada, and every lieutenant-governor in the country. And that's just the beginning.

He has appointed the chief justice, associate chief justice, and numerous trial and appeal justices of the Federal Court of Canada, along with the chief justices of the top courts in Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and British Columbia.

He has named the governor and the entire board of the Bank of Canada, the head of the CBC, its board of directors and their counterparts in dozens of crown corporations and agencies.

Canada's information and privacy commissioners were appointed by Mr. Chrétien, as were the chief of the defence staff, the clerk of the Privy Council, and dozens of deputy ministers. The PM made appointments to Canada's top diplomatic posts in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, to name a few. He even got to name his constitutional boss, the Governor-General, and to set the date for his own bid for re-election. No modern democratic head of government enjoys this kind of exclusive, unchecked power.

When it comes to the method of appointing people to positions of high office and the lack of scrutiny associated with it, Canada in the 21st century is a place where Louis XVI would feel right at home.

All these appointments are made without formal public consultation. No committee of Parliament must confirm them. They are discretionary to the prime minister of the day and every prime minister has used the system to the fullest. If a PM wants to appoint only his friends and supporters, he can. If he wants to appoint people who hold views that may be offensive to Canadians, he can do that, too. Conveniently, Canadians don't get to know what the views of these people are before they are appointed. The nation merely wakes up one day like Rip Van Winkle and discovers that something has changed. That's the Canadian way.

These positions carry enormous power. In recent years, for instance, the courts have taken on a new level of judicial activism in the daily lives of Canadians as a result of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Yet the backroom method of appointing top judges has not changed in more than a century. The PM decides. End of discussion.

Take the Senate - most prime ministers do. Unlike peers in Britain's House of Lords, Canadian senators are paid well for their duties. Large offices, generous expense accounts and attentive staffs go with the job. Yet membership in Canada's second legislative chamber is entirely a matter of prime ministerial prerogative. We get to know nothing of the values, opinions, and backgrounds of senators until they are appointed. They have all the power and prestige that go with being a member of Parliament but none of the accountability to constituents that attaches to elected office. And unlike members of the House of Commons, senators regularly vote on matters, such as banking, affecting companies on whose boards they may sit.

Why does this system continue? The easy answer is to lay the blame at the feet of Canada's political leaders. But if you accept the belief that citizens have the ultimate role to play in the governance of a democracy, then the only reasonable conclusion is that Canadians like it this way.

Ironically, as investors, Canadians are demanding that companies practice better corporate governance and are pressing institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, to demonstrate higher standards of transparency and accountability. But in our own backyard, we are content to elect a prime minister with the appointment powers of an autocrat for the duration of his term. It is a curious anomaly of an otherwise sensible people in accepting such an archaic governance system. Louis himself couldn't have asked for anything more.

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