Parliamentary Government in the Age of Populism

Article 6 / 13 , Vol 43 No 4 (Winter)

Parliamentary Government in the Age of Populism

The Canadian parliamentary system is based on accepted rules, norms and conventions. Populism denotes a form of governing in which the perceived will of “the people” can be used as a means to challenge the very rules and conventions which underline responsible government. In this article, the author considers the rise of self-styled “populist” regimes in recent years and raises questions as to what extent populism may threaten the traditions and practices of Canada’s parliamentary system, and conversely whether the parliamentary system is capable of acting as a shield against the anti-democratic impulses of populism.

“Everyone knows that on a large scale democracy is pernicious nonsense – a country or even a county cannot be run by a self-seeking parcel of tub-thumping politicians working on popular emotion, rousing the mob.”

– Captain Jack Aubrey, The Yellow Admiral1

Captain Aubrey is the central character of author Patrick O’Brian’s celebrated series of novels set during the Napoleonic Wars. Later in his naval career Aubrey is also a Member of the British Parliament, representing a “pocket borough.” These “pocket” or “rotten” boroughs were House of Commons seats held by a patron who controlled the voting rights in that constituency. Pocket boroughs were abolished in England following the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867.

Jack Aubrey’s distrust of unchecked popular democracy was typical of the age, particularly in light of the violence and bloodshed which marked the French Revolution. Yet Aubrey’s fear of “tub-thumping politicians” remains a perennial concern. History is rife with examples of political leaders whipping up public sentiment in the interests of political objectives, both for good or ill. For every Winston Churchill calling on public resolve in the face of fearful odds, there are anti-democratic leaders using populist rhetoric to stoke fear and resentment, including turning public opinion against established institutions and norms of governing.

In recent times, we have witnessed a wave of anti-establishment and self-styled “populist” governments across the globe. From the United States to Great Britain, from Brazil to India, from Italy to Israel, political leaders have used populist appeals to win power and demonize opposition to their methods and agenda. In this article, I examine the clash between parliamentary responsible government and populism, and whether Canada’s parliamentary system is likewise vulnerable to populism or perhaps is particularly suited to avoiding populism’s anti-democratic excesses.

Foundations of the parliamentary system

The Westminster model is the foundation of the Canadian system of representative and responsible government. Parliament’s principle role is to serve as a check on executive authority, a role that goes to the heart of the issue of how power is legitimately exercised and held accountable in a democratic society. As C.E.S. Franks notes in The Parliament of Canada, “[the] main functions of the House of Commons are to create a responsible government and to hold that government accountable.”2 Ours is a system of “responsible” government in the sense that the legislature is the means by which the government is kept in check, and the process by which governments change.

It is also “responsible” in the sense that members of the Cabinet exercise power and are responsible for the use of that power. The parliamentary-cabinet system combines authority with responsibility, and it is incumbent on the governing administration to answer for its decisions before Parliament and, ultimately, before the voting public. The safeguarding against the abuse of Ministerial authority lies in the relationship between Parliament and the government of the day. Parliament serves as the assembly before which the government of the day must defend its decisions.

Rules and conventions are the guiding force of the parliamentary system. The successful operation of that system is based in large measure on the procedures and precedents which guide its work. It is also shaped by human behaviour, the willingness of parliamentarians to respect and abide by those rules and procedures governing their conduct. This in turn endows those institutions with legitimacy in the eyes of the public. The effectiveness of these representative institutions instills public confidence in the governance of the country. The lack of such confidence may cause dissatisfaction and disengagement. It may also encourage attempts to adopt extra-parliamentary measures, or a leader willing to undercut accepted procedures in the name of the “public will.”

Although Parliament encompasses the Crown, the House of Commons and the Senate, parliamentary democracy is centred in the elected House of Commons. The House of Commons binds the people to those who exercise power and, in doing so, “[the] House gives institutional expression to the concept of a national community.”3 In the parliamentary system, for example, control of the executive lies with the House of Commons. In order to govern, the party in office must enjoy the confidence of the House. Should the government lose that confidence, it must resign. In a parliamentary system, the Prime Minister, together with members of the Cabinet, sit within rather than apart from the House of Commons, and are therefore subject to parliamentary scrutiny and accountability. Their right to govern cannot be divorced from Parliament.

In turn, the House of Commons depends on that need for confidence in order to exact accountability on the part of the government. But the House of Commons does not participate in the government. Parliamentary control does not mean a veto over government actions, but rather accountability of the executive to the legislature. This was the essential outcome of England’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. It established, once and for all, that the Crown was subject to the control of Parliament. Unlike the case in France or the United States, the establishment of the Dominion of Canada in 1867 was not the product of a popular uprising and so did not create a “people.” As a result, the parliamentary system adopted in Canada on the basis of the Westminster model is not “government by the people.”4

Unfortunately, “[although] our constitution is similar in principle to that of Great Britain, many Canadians tend to think of the House of Commons in congressional terms. They mislead themselves.”5 This misreading may be due in part to insufficient civic education in Canada as to the basic principles of the parliamentary system, which leads to the erroneous but persistent notion that the House of Commons is elected to govern. This mythology persists, even perhaps in the minds of some MPs.

In keeping with the constitutional objectives of “peace, order and good government,” the Official Opposition to the government in the House of Commons is deliberately identified as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. This title underscores the parliamentary and public legitimacy of the Opposition to the government of the day. It also denotes opposition to the government, but not to the state itself and not with the intention of overthrowing the state through non-democratic means.

John B. Stewart identifies four functions performed by the House of Commons. First, the House can prevent the clandestine exercise of power by the government. Second, the House can serve as a proving ground for the administrative policies and legislative proposals of the government. Third, the House can constrain the government between elections – a role that can be played by both the opposition and within the ranks of the government caucus. Fourth, the House can serve to inform and educate the electorate by testing ideas and proposals in public.6

Cabinet Ministers in the parliamentary system are not Ministers of the House of Commons. They are Ministers of the Crown. That distinction is a very real constitutional principle with genuine implications. Indeed, “[it] is one of the main factors which determine how Canada is governed. The power of the House [of Commons] springs ultimately, not from what it can do independently, but from what it can prevent.”7

These powers include the expenditure of public funds which requires the consent of the House of Commons, the imposition of taxes, and the passage of legislation. Under responsible government there can be no government unless the House of Commons supports and cooperates with one. Therefore, the House has a serious constitutional function – not to govern – but to support a government or conversely to deny that support. Since, conventionally, Ministers of the Crown physically sit in the House of Commons, they cannot avoid the scrutiny of the House and require its ongoing cooperation in order to conduct the business of the House. That cooperation becomes ever more critical in the case of a minority Parliament. The government must put its administrative and legislative activities before the House of Commons in the form of supply votes, substantive motions and bills.

The House of Commons serves as an electoral chamber, giving a government authority, to sustain it and thus to make stable government possible and, finally, to withdraw its confidence from a government which no longer deserves to exercise power.8 Parliamentary debate takes place within the parameters of a detailed set of rules intended to provide effective democratic control over the governing administration, based on procedures and conventions which provide purpose, organization and order. Legislative bodies are traditionally masters of their own proceedings and so cannot be usurped by such extra-parliamentary devices.

Unlike the House of Commons, the Canadian Senate was deliberately conceived as an appointed body with a distinct role in the context of responsible government. The Senate was intended as a regional counterweight to the principle of “rep by pop” and the potentially “radical” tendencies of the House of Commons. The Fathers of Confederation intended the Senate to be not the equal of the House, but a secondary legislative body, “with a role of revising legislation emanating from the House of Commons and restraining and delaying its more dangerous impulses.”9 In this way, the Senate was intended as a safeguard against the disorder that plunged the United States into civil war.

Along with the House of Commons and the Senate, one must consider the role of the Governor General. A key purpose of that office is to ensure that the principle of responsible government is not abused. The powers to summon and dissolve Parliament are assigned explicitly and solely to the Governor General under the Constitution Act, 1867. In other words, the power to prorogue Parliament is a prerogative power of the Crown. The House of Commons, therefore, cannot be prorogued by the Prime Minister alone. Instead, the Prime Minister must formally advise the Governor General to use the powers invested in that office to legally achieve these ends.

The reserve powers of the Governor General embody his or her constitutional responsibility to ensure that the Prime Minister has and continues to maintain the confidence of the House of Commons and does not attempt to govern in the absence of such confidence. “In the final analysis, it is the governor general who stands in the breach against unprincipled political action that threatens to bring about a virtual coup d’etat. [She/He] is the ultimate protector of the constitutional order.”10 This role would become a central issue during the 2008 prorogation debate.

What is populism?

Broadly speaking, populism is an approach to politics which appeals to the needs and aspirations of “the people,” a group conceived as being disadvantaged compared to “the elite” who have benefited socially and economically from the existing political order. An elitist view of power holds that democracy operates through a relatively small, homogenous and permanent group exercising effective power in that society.11 This is the power structure which populism seeks to challenge.

Populism can be a positive political force. Government actions are best, as Jeremy Bentham reasoned, when they are “conformable to or dictated by the principle of utility, when in like manner the tendency which it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any which it has to diminish it.”12 John Stuart Mill would carry Bentham’s conception of utilitarianism forward in holding that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness.”13 This view goes hand in hand with the assumption that each individual best knows his or her own interests.

Another aspect of populism is the appeal of the political “outsider” untainted by association with entrenched elites. Donald Trump, for example, won the Republican Party nomination for President and the Presidency despite having never previously served in elected office at any level.

Populism occupies a significant place in American political history. It is associated with mass popular movements which served to topple undemocratic regimes; for example, the collapse of communism across Eastern Europe in 1989, the Solidarity movement in Poland, and the “Velvet Revolution” in the former Czechoslovakia. More recently, the strong show of public support for the Sinn Fein party in the February 2020 Irish general election has been described as a populist uprising against the two political parties (Fianna Fail, Fine Gael) which had ruled the country for over a century, fueled by public discontent over basic issues such as housing, health care, and social inequality.14 Populism, as John Lennon might have put it, can mean “power to the people.”15

The Dark Side of Populism

On the other hand, populism can also be a smokescreen for authoritarianism. According to Michael Ignatieff, “populism is a movement in which you use democracy against democracy.”16 John Stuart Mill warned of this “tyranny” – both legal and societal.17 The tipping point, as Ignatieff warns, is when populism is turned into a “politics of enemies.” Running for the Republican Party nomination and President in 2016, Donald Trump ran a populist campaign that struck a chord with large numbers of Americans, particularly in communities wrestling with economic dislocation in the face of technological change and globalization. This appeal, however, was also heavily based on an isolationist (“America First”) and nativist agenda in which the country’s “decline” was portrayed as the fault of “others” (including refugees and immigrants). Trump’s successful campaign deliberately utilized a language of discontent and disenfranchisement that is often associated with right-wing populism.

Similar tactics were employed by supporters of Great Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. The successful “Leave” campaign during the 2016 vote played heavily on negative themes (“foreigners,” Europhobia) and nostalgia for Britain’s lost “greatness” among Western democracies.

The dark side of populism also accepts uncritically that all decision-making is valid based on a simple majority, with little if any consideration of the impact on particular communities in the absence of other legal protections. In this scenario, the loudest voice wins.

In their recent study, How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt list four warning signs of anti-democratic behaviour: a weak or hostile commitment to democratic norms and procedures, denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, a willingness to curtail civil liberties and free expression, and a toleration or encouragement of violence.18 While these tactics have long been associated with repressive regimes (Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany) they can also be employed by nominally democratic governments that make no distinction between loyalty to the state and loyalty to the regime. In the United States, President Donald Trump has used social media and incendiary language to denounce critics, including Congress and the mainstream press. He even referred to the news media as “enemies of the people,” a charge associated with the Stalinist era in the former USSR. In language reminiscent of McCarthyism in the 1950s, Trump likewise called the recent impeachment proceedings against him a “witch hunt,” a conspiracy perpetrated by the “dark state” and a “coup d’etat” aimed at overturning the 2016 presidential election. Similar tactics, using populist language to tap into public discontent, have resulted in autocratic regimes emerging across the globe.

As various governments around the world grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, there are legitimate fears that authoritarian regimes are using the crisis to invoke anti-democratic measures under the guise of “emergency” laws in the interests of public health and safety. In Hungary, for example, the far-right government of President Victor Orban suspended all elections, allowing him to rule by decree and bypass democratic institutions and the courts. Even in far more democratic societies, the use of broad and coercive state authority in the name of combating the global pandemic has raised questions about limits on individual freedoms.

Without using the term “populism,” John Stuart Mill saw the potential threat to democratic society in his “harm principle.” As Mill insisted, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”19 Mill warns that once people are free to make their own choices, they are vulnerable to being taken in by narrow appeals to self-interest, a weakness which a leader can exploit through nominally populist appeals to those self-interests, while marginalizing or demonizing those who oppose this agenda. This in turn hampers or even threatens a society’s intellectual development, with the views of the majority stifling individual creativity and dissent.20 Consequently, rule by the many morphs into the tyranny of the majority absent other political or legal safeguards.

In such an environment, democratic institutions are vulnerable to abuse, and society may be effectively ungovernable. Symptoms of this ungovernability include: the inability to form a stable government (see the United Kingdom from 2017-2019 during Brexit negotiations), the inability of governments to pass basic laws on which the day-to-day operation of the state depends (such as a budget impasse in the United States when Congress and the President refuse to cooperate), and most seriously, the systematic corruption of constitutional norms and conventions that making political processes haphazard and arbitrary, possibly with the aim of marginalizing political opposition (for example, President Donald Trump’s efforts to discredit articles of impeachment and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to avoid criminal indictment on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust).

There is one other important but often overlooked symptom of ungovernability; a “canary in the coal mine.” The weakening of political parties as agents of civic engagement and public participation in the political life of the country can become problematic. Parties “are the organizing forces of parliamentary democracy… If parties continue to decline, political systems are likely to become at least more fluid, and at worst harder to govern.”21 Fluidity means a weakening of responsibility. For “[by] concentrating votes for themselves, the political parties concentrate responsibility on themselves.”22 Absent parties, all are equally responsible, which is another way of saying none are responsible.

The devaluing of political institutions goes hand in hand with the coarsening of public debate. Individuals are demonized, their motives questioned, expertise is devalued, and fact-based evidence is dismissed. Populism, rightly or wrongly, has become associated with a virulent kind of anti-intellectualism, in which slogans take the place of knowledge.23

Parliament versus Populism

The parliamentary system of responsible government, as noted, operates on the basis of rules, procedures and conventions. The successful operation of these rules and procedures, however, is in large part dependent on the concurrence and active support of Members of Parliament. But what happens when that is not the case? In the United Kingdom, the cradle of parliamentary responsible government, Prime Minister Boris Johnson openly questioned the right of Members of Parliament to challenge the decision (based on the slim 2016 referendum result) to remove that country from the European Union. This questioning of MP’s right came despite serious concerns about the consequences of failing to reach an agreement on terms and unresolved questions regarding other economic and political issues (for example, the future of the Irish border, Scottish independence). The “will of the people,” Johnson and other Brexit supporters insisted, would be denied if Brexit were to be thwarted. The legitimacy of Parliament itself was openly called into question. Prime Minister Johnson used this same argument when his minority Conservative government sought an extraordinarily lengthy five-week prorogation of Parliament. The British Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Queen had been led to act unlawfully when the Prime Minister advised her to suspend Parliament stating that the Conservative government had not provided “any reason – let alone a good reason” – for such an attack on “the fundamentals of democracy.”24

As befitting the heated political environment of the time, Johnson’s move to suspend Parliament was denounced by House of Commons Speaker John Bercow as a “constitutional outrage.” Yet in strikingly similar language, the Government Leader in the House of Commons decried the Court’s decision as a “constitutional coup.” Prime Minister Johnson, though agreeing to meet the House, offered no apology for attempting to sideline Parliament, instead denouncing what he claimed was the Supreme Court’s “interference.” He accused anti-Brexit MPs of trying to frustrate the public’s decision in the referendum, effectively portraying both Parliament and the Supreme Court as obstacles to the popular will.25 Johnson and his supporters even vowed that Brexit would be accomplished “by any means necessary,” a phrase popularized by the American civil rights activist Malcolm X in a 1965 speech.26 That speech was interpreted as condoning all means, including potentially violent methods, to effect societal change against the established political order.

The case of Canada

Is the Canadian parliamentary system similarly vulnerable to the kind of anti-democratic populism witnessed elsewhere? Conversely, is there anything about the Canadian situation that may make it better able to counter the authoritarian streak associated with populism?

Canada’s historical experience of populism has been largely regionally-based and centred primarily in Western Canada. It has taken the form of movements and political parties created to highlight grievances by the rural and less-populated West against the urban, more highly populated and politically-influential East. Examples include the United Farmers of Alberta, the Social Credit Party in Alberta, and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in Saskatchewan. At the federal level, the Western-based Reform Party was born out of similar circumstances. In its early days, the Reform Party spoke the language of populism and regional alienation. Its platform stressed political accountability and public participation in the development of public policy (for example, an elected Senate, more “free votes” by Members of Parliament based on the wishes of constituents rather than the demands of party discipline, and using referenda more often).

Although a founding member of the Reform Party, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper carried little of the Reform Party legacy into his leadership of the federal Conservative Party. In its first term of office (2006-2008), Harper’s minority Conservative government did bring forward legislation providing for fixed-date elections (An Act to Amend the Canada Elections Act), removing a strategically important prerogative of the Prime Minister. The Act came into force on May 3, 2007. This initiative proved an early victim of realpolitik when the Prime Minister sought and was granted a dissolution of the House of Commons on September 7, 2008, for a general election on October 14, 2008 – a full year before the initial fixed-date election was to have taken place. When questioned about the apparent about-face, the Government contended that the Act only applied in cases of a majority government, though there is no such qualifier in the law.

In 2011, the Conservative Government introduced Bill C-7 (Senate Reform Act). The Act provided for a fixed nine-year term for senators and allowed provinces the option of holding elections to choose Senate representatives. The Government claimed that the changes did not require resorting to the general amending formula under the Constitution Act, 1982 (seven provinces totalling at least 50 per cent of the population). In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court of Canada found Bill C-7 to be unconstitutional, after which the Government abandoned any further attempts at Senate reform that would inevitably require lengthy negotiations with provincial governments to achieve a constitutional amendment.

Notwithstanding these examples, it is the 2008 prorogation debate which remains the most notable example of the clash between Parliament and populism. Less than two months after the October 14, 2008, general election, which returned a second Conservative Party-led minority government, Prime Minister Harper faced a united opposition prepared to move a motion of non-confidence and a proposed new government based on a written agreement by a coalition of the opposition Liberals and New Democratic Party (with the Bloc Québécois agreeing to support the coalition but not participate as a member of it). Instead, on December 8, 2008, Harper requested that the Governor General prorogue the House of Commons. That request was ultimately granted, allowing the Government to evade almost certain defeat in the House of Commons and loss of office. The prorogation lasted until January 26, 2009.

Much public and academic debate ensued over whether the Governor General had a choice and, if so, made the right decision in granting the request for prorogation. What is clear is that the Prime Minister and the Conservative government sought to justify prorogation in populist terms, claiming that the actions of the opposition parties, including the proposed coalition, was “illegal” or “unconstitutional” or that the attempt to defeat the government and replace it was “undemocratic.” Prime Minister Harper further insisted that only “the people” could decide the fate of the government in an election. Yet this argument is contrary to one of the fundamental tenets of parliamentary responsible government – namely that the government must maintain the confidence of the House. The Harper Government’s invocation of “democracy” and “the people” was an appeal of a partisan kind; notably the Prime Minister claimed that he himself had a mandate to govern which could not be taken away other than by a general election.27 This argument was false, as the Prime Minister (as a Member of Parliament) is not directly elected by the public at large, but only by the voters of his or her constituency. Harper’s claim of a “mandate” is likewise weak when one considers that the combined popular vote for the opposition parties exceeded that of the ruling Conservatives.

By its tactics, the Conservative Government threatened to bring the office of the Governor General into the arena of partisan politics and could very well have made the Governor General a target had she chosen to refuse Harper’s request for prorogation. In such circumstances, according to C.E.S. Franks, “the governor general would have been identified, along with the [opposition] coalition, as one of the enemies of democracy.”28 By her decision to grant prorogation, Governor General Michaëlle Jean likely spared the office of Governor General and herself from such a fate. Unlike in the British example, the question of whether the Governor General granted a prorogation of Parliament based on unlawful advice from the Prime Minister was not tested in a court of law. In any case, by his actions, Prime Minister Harper “undermined the right conduct of parliamentary democracy, first by taking deliberate steps in the direction of populist democracy and second by creating confusion about the role of the House of Commons in sustaining or dismissing the government of the day.”29 Harper remained unrepentant, later suggesting that his actions “saved the federation.”30

Canada’s Parliament in the Populist Age

The 2008 prorogation debate demonstrates an example of a government willing to misrepresent basic principles of the Canadian parliamentary system, using the language of “populism,” while seeking to discredit other institutions (the House of Commons, the office of the Governor General, the Supreme Court) in the minds of the public. Yet, Canada has managed to largely avoid the sort of nativist rhetoric that has poisoned public debate in other Western democracies. A polarizing, yet substantially popular figure comparable to Donald Trump in the United States, Marine Le Pen in France, or Matteo Salvini in Italy has yet to emerge.

However, some observers warn that Parliament is failing its citizens and risking political legitimacy because it no longer has the ability to hold the government to account.31 Such concerns are not new. Some 40 years ago, former Progressive Conservative Party leader Robert Stanfield lamented “that parliamentary responsible government is not fitted for what it is being asked to do: that both the government and Parliament are overloaded to the point that we have poor government; and Parliament cannot cope with government.”32 The fact, however, that no political leader or faction has emerged in Canada to successfully exploit the perceived inability of Parliament to hold government accountable is no reason for complacency.

The fundamentals of parliamentary responsible government have not changed. Yet various reform ideas aimed at enhancing Parliament’s role are, to some extent, populist arguments against responsible government. The parliamentary system means government within Parliament, but not by Parliament.33 As C.E.S. Franks notes, the rhetoric of reform is part of a flawed appreciation for the difference between the “parliament-centred” ambition of many reform proposals versus the “executive-centred” reality of the parliamentary process. Change cannot be divorced from a proper understanding of how Parliament operates and the nature of responsible government in a parliamentary system. Any potential reforms must take into account “questions of political power, who shall have it, and for what purposes, collective or particular, power has been and should be used.”34

The federal government’s approach to the Covid-19 pandemic is a recent case in point. When the minority Liberal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced emergency economic measures, including provisions which would allow the government to act for months without parliamentary debate or approval, opposition parties pushed back against the extraordinary powers. The government was forced to open these policies to full parliamentary scrutiny. As a result, parliament acted on one of its essential roles: checking the use of executive authority and ensuring that parliamentary scrutiny and debate were not abused or sacrificed. Even as the House of Commons, both in Canada and Great Britain, have resorted to meetings via Zoom technology during the pandemic, the importance of parliamentary scrutiny (physical or virtual) remains unchanged. That scrutiny is as much to the benefit of Ministers as it is to opposition parties. The prolonged absence of regular parliamentary sittings during the pandemic raises troubling questions about effective government accountability at a time when such oversight is most urgently needed. The Trudeau government’s resort to prorogation in August 2020, together with its extraordinary decision in October 2020 to make an opposition party motion to strike a parliamentary committee to investigate the WE charity controversy a matter of confidence, further demonstrates the necessary role of Parliament to check arbitrary government action aimed at avoiding public scrutiny.

There is much to be said for a system, whatever its shortcomings, that provides stability and continuity, as well as necessary checks on executive action. In this sense, the Canadian parliamentary system of responsible government plays an important role as a protective shield against the potentially anti-democratic bent of populism and an essential break on unbridled executive authority together with other aspects (history, demography) that are unique to the Canadian case. The rules, procedures and conventions which govern Parliament, both the business of Parliament and its members, provides order, predictability and legitimacy, both in the eyes of Members of Parliament and in the eyes of the public.

Populism offers a seemingly attractive antidote to public dissatisfaction with political institutions deemed insufficiently attuned to popular demands. In times of anxiety and distrust, the public may look to a Howard Beale-like figure, “an angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our times.”35 In times of upheaval and dislocation, the appeal of stability offered by the “man on horseback” may foreshadow repression.36 When populism is used as a smokescreen for decidedly undemocratic actions, we may be more appreciative of Parliament and its role in checking the heavy hand of manipulation and executive overreach.


1 Patrick O’Brian, The Yellow Admiral. HarperCollins, London, 1997, p.38.

2 C.E.S. Franks, The Parliament of Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987, p. 269.

3 David E. Smith, The People’s House of Commons – Theories of Democracy in Contention, Toronto: University of Toronto, 2007, p. 5.

4 David E. Smith, The People’s House of Commons – Theories of Democracy in Contention, Toronto: University of Toronto, 2007, p. 91. From time to time there have been efforts to graft populist instruments on to the parliamentary system – such as referenda and recall. David E. Smith notes, however, that these initiatives “are viewed as much as a trespass on the political prerogatives of Parliament as they are on the constitutional prerogatives of the Crown”. David E. Smith, The Constitution in a Hall of Mirrors: Canada At 150, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017, p. 88.

5 John B. Stewart, The Canadian House of Commons: Procedure and Reform, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1977, p. 3.

6 John B. Stewart, The Canadian House of Commons: Procedure and Reform, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press,1977, p. 16.

7 John B. Stewart, The Canadian House of Commons: Procedure and Reform, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press,1977, p. 10.

8 J.R. Mallory, The Structure of Canadian Government, Toronto: Macmillan, 1977, p. 243.

9 C.E.S. Franks, The Parliament of Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987, p. 187.

10 Brian Slattery, “Why the Governor General Matters,” Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis, eds. Peter H. Russell & Lorne Sossin. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009. pp. 88.

11 J. Roland Pennock, Democratic Political Theory, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1979, pp. 162-63.

12 Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1823, p. 3.

13 John Stuart Mill. “Utilitarianism,” Classics of Western Philosophy, 2nd ed., Steven M. Cahn. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 1985, p. 983. “Protection therefore against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism.” John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty,” Classics of Western Philosophy, 2nd ed., Steven M. Cahn. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 1985, pp. 1023-24.

14 Paul Waldie, “Sinn Fein scores breakthrough in Irish election”, Globe and Mail, February 10, 2020, A5.

15 John Lennon. “Power to the People”, Apple Records, 1971.

16 Michael Ignatieff, “What causes populism?,” Esade University, Barcelona, November 5, 2019.

17 “The will of the people…practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people – the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority.” John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty,” Classics of Western Philosophy, 2nd ed., Steven M. Cahn. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 1985, p. 1023. Walter Bagehot was likewise concerned about how best “to prevent the party politicians, for purely opportunistic reasons, making concessions to democracy which would substitute government by ignorance and brute numbers for government by discussion.” R.H.S. Crossman, “Introduction,” Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, Fontana: London, 1964, p. 7.

18 Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die, Broadway: New York, 2018, pp. 23-24.

19 John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty,” Classics of Western Philosophy, 2nd ed., Steven M. Cahn. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 1985, p. 1027.

20 “[A person’s] own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise or even right. There are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise.” “On Liberty,” Classics of Western Philosophy, 2nd ed., Steven M. Cahn. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 1985, p. 1027.

21 “Coalitions of Chaos,” The Economist, August 3, 2019, p. 51. C.E.S. Franks goes further, describing political parties as “[the] most important determinants of the control and use of power in the Canadian parliamentary system”; The Parliament of Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. 35.

22 J.A. Corry and J.E. Hodgetts, Democratic Government and Politics, 3rd Edition (Revised), 1963, p. 224.

23 This is not a new phenomenon. It troubled John Stuart Mill in his time. “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth. If wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” “On Liberty,” Classics of Western Philosophy, 2nd ed., Steven M. Cahn. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 1985, p. 1031. The same warnings would be sounded by Sinclair Lewis in his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, published in the midst of fascism’s rise in Europe.

24 “Supreme Court: Suspending Parliament was unlawful, judges rule,” BBC News, September 24, 2019.

25 “The Reckoning,” The Economist, September 28, 2019, p.12.

26 “We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.” Malcolm X, “By Any Means Necessary,” Malcolm X: Speeches and Writings, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1992. In June 2016, British Labour Member of Parliament Jo Cox, a defender of the European Union and immigration, was brutally murdered by Thomas Mair, a 53-year old unemployed gardener, who blamed liberal-minded politicians and the mainstream media for the world’s problems and had targeted Cox as a “collaborator” and “traitor” to the white race. Boris Johnson himself has been accused of inciting intolerance and resorting to “dog-whistle” politics. Serving as Foreign Secretary in 2018, he remarked that – in reference to Muslim women wearing burkas – it was “absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.” “Boris Johnson faces criticism over burka ‘letterbox’ jibe.” BBC News, August 6, 2018.

27 Peter Aucoin, Mark D. Jarvis, Lori Turnbull, Democraticizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government, Toronto: Edmond Montgomery, 2011, p.92. “Harper’s request to suspend Parliament to avoid a confidence vote in December 2008 was a blatant abuse of that power for political reasons that served no public purpose.” Peter Aucoin, Mark D. Jarvis, Lori Turnbull, Democraticizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government. Toronto: Emond Montgomery, 2011, p. 102. “Among the other half-truths and outright misrepresentations in Harper’s and his party’s statements were the claim that the opposition coalition would be an ‘illegitimate’ government while his government was ‘legitimate.’” C.E.S. Franks, “To Prorogue or not to Prorogue: Did the Governor General Make the Right Decision?,” Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis, eds. Peter H. Russell & Lorne Sossin. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009, pp. 38-39. The distortions included the Government’s claim that the coalition included the Quebec independence-focused Bloc Quebecois, which was not the case. But the impression was enough to provoke anti- Quebec sentiment, notably among the Conservative Party’s western-based supporters.

28 C.E.S. Franks, “To Prorogue or Not to Prorogue: Did the Governor General Make the Right Decision?,” Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis; eds. Peter H. Russell and Lorne Sossin. University of Toronto Press, 2009, p. 45.

29 Jennifer Smith, “Parliamentary Democracy versus Faux Populist Democracy,” Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis, eds. Peter H. Russell and Lorne Sossin. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009, p. 175. If this view seems unduly alarmist, one need only point to the Conservative government’s partisan attack on the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada when in March 2014 the Court rejected Prime Minister Harper’s appointment of the semi-retired Federal Court judge Marc Nadon. In response the Government implied, though offering no proof, that the Chief Justice had improperly sought to “interfere” in the Nadon appointment by seeking to speak to the Prime Minister directly about it. There was widespread speculation that the rejection of the Nadon appointment, coupled with other Supreme Court decisions that had not gone the Government’s way, had prompted this unprecedented attack on the Chief Justice’s personal and professional integrity. Harper resorted to prorogation again on December 30, 2009, suspending Parliament for two months until March 3, 2010. In this case, critics argued that the Conservative Government was deliberately seeking to avoid parliamentary scrutiny over its handling of information related to the Canadian military’s handling of the custody of Afghan military personnel taken prisoner by Canadian soldiers. Harper also voiced his support for Boris Johnson’s own prorogation tactics. Paul Waldie, “Johnson’s Brexit approach is ‘absolutely correct,’ Harper tells U.K. Tories, Globe and Mail, October 2, 2019.

30 Paul Waldie. “Johnson’s Brexit approach is ‘absolutely correct,’ Harper tells U.K. Tories,” Globe and Mail, October 2, 2019.

31 Donald Savoie, “Our political institutions are failing: The next Parliament must save them,” Globe and Mail, September 21, 2019, pp. O1, O8.

32 Robert L. Stanfield, “The Present State of the Legislative Process in Canada: Myths and Realities,” The Legislative Process in Canada: The Need for Reform, eds. W.AW. Neilson and J.C. MacPherson; Institute for Research on Public Policy, Butterworth and Co, Toronto, 1978, p. 42.

33 C.E.S. Franks, The Parliament of Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987, p. 10.

34 C.E.S. Franks, The Parliament of Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987, p. 258.

35 Network, Director: Sidney Lumet; Screenplay: Paddy Chayefsky (1976).

36 Samuel E. Finer, The Man on Horseback: The Role of the Military in Politics. Oxford: Routledge, 2002.