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At the Centre of Government: The Prime Minister and the Limits of Political Power

At The Centre Of Government: The Prime Minister And The Limits Of Political Power

At the Centre of Government: The Prime Minister and the Limits of Political Power. Ian Brodie. Montréal-Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018.


Having lived both vita contemplativa (as a tenured professor of Political Science) and vita activa (as Chief of Staff for Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper), Ian Brodie is well positioned to comment on whether academic characterizations truly capture political reality.  And Brodie does not disappoint. His new book, At the Centre of Government, is a lively account of Canadian constitutional theory peppered with illuminating anecdotes of power actually exercised, making it a must-read for any student of Canadian government and for those interested in the implementation of political ideas more generally.

At the Centre of Government engages with at least two bodies of literature on Canadian politics.  The first, which it fits comfortably within, might be called the new Canadian “status quo lit”: books that push back against an even larger number of volumes breathlessly peddling reforms to Canada’s supposedly outdated and dysfunctional institutions.  Brodie follows in the wake of books like John Pepall’s Against Reform (2010) and Dale Smith’s The Unbroken Machine (2017) by arguing for a better appreciation of Canada’s existing political system before any sweeping changes be enacted, especially since those reforms might exacerbate the very problems they purport to address.  All of them echo Lord Albany’s warning in King Lear that “striving to better, oft we mar what’s well” and these authors, regardless of whether they convince the reform-minded (and the reform-obsessed will never be deterred), helpfully draw the attention of Canadians back to the animating ideas that, for the most part, serve Canada well.  This is a particularly important service with respect to the often misunderstood and underappreciated principles of Responsible Government, which Brodie elucidates by drawing heavily upon the path-breaking work of Janet Ajzenstat.  Starting with her resurrection of The Political Thought of Lord Durham (1988), Ajzenstat has sought to teach Canadians to appreciate that Responsible Government – perhaps the best institutional manifestation of liberalism possible – has virtues that vastly outweigh any accompanying dysfunctions it might bring.  Indeed, Canada will be fortunate if Brodie’s book is the gateway drug to a full Ajzenstat addiction.

The other literature that Brodie’s book engages centres around one of Canadian political science’s most well-worn claims: power is so unduly concentrated in the executive that legislatures (and other institutional checks) cannot properly perform their function.  The regular authority – and the one Brodie clearly targets – is Donald Savoie’s Governing From the Centre (1999).  Savoie argues that “Court government has taken root in Canada” such that “effective power rests with the prime minister and a small group of courtiers” (635).  Savoie is sometimes only half-read by his critics and his admirers: while the portrait of an all-powerful prime minister travels widely in Canadian political studies (perhaps popularized by columnist Jeffrey Simpson’s assessment of Prime Minister Chrétien as the Friendly Dictator (2001)), a secondary argument – that the Prime Ministership has become more “managerial,” risk-adverse, and fearful of the gaffes that can result in media firestorms – goes less remarked upon.  If the Canadian executive “were ever asked to ice a hockey team,” Savoie writes, “they would put six goaltenders on the ice” (122).  The tension between this meekness and the alleged accumulation of power resolved itself, in Savoie’s model, with a distinction between formal institutional checks (essentially the Cabinet and the legislature) that could easily be transcended by Prime Ministers and their central agencies, and the more informal limitations imposed by modern political reality, need to be heeded.  So, in Savoie’s view, the media provides real opposition to the Prime Ministerial centre, whereas the Members of Parliament do not.

Here Brodie makes his strongest contribution by showing that there is an intimate connection between formal and informal checks that makes them virtually inseparable and, in doing so, helps us better understand what political philosophers sometimes refer to as the “circumstances of politics.”  Brodie concedes that ultimate prime ministerial authority must be regularly invoked in four key areas (fiscal policy, foreign relations, intergovernmental affairs, and the government’s Parliamentary business).  Even in these domains, though, a prudent Prime Minister listens and responds to other actors: Brodie notes that before each Budget, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper (whom Brodie served as Chief of Staff) would meet with each opposition leader and include “one of the ‘asks’ from each opposition party” (31).  At the same time, Brodie rightly points out that the centralization of the Budget process is an advantage that distinguishes it from its free-wheeling, decentralized American counter-part: the Canadian Prime Minister and his Finance Minister are “the only two decision-makers who are able to insert ‘earmarks’ – specific line items of funding for specific recipients – into the budget” (32)  This is a key, formal institutional feature (found in ss. 53 and 54 of the British North America Act, 1867) that allows for synoptic government budgeting in both taxing and spending; Canadians should be thankful their constitution enables them to avoid the log-rolling negotiations that are too often resolved by “Bridges to Nowhere” and other “pork barrel” incentives in the American budget.  It is this interaction between formal rules and Prime Ministerial prudence that provides this happy balance.

Brodie highlights one particularly underappreciated constraint on prime ministerial power, and again one that is transcends the distinction between formal and informal limits: time.  He might be considered an early responder to Elizabeth F. Cohen’s call for political scientists to pay more attention to time as a “valuable good that is frequently used to transact over power” (The Political Value of Time, 2018).  Brodie’s “good” is the Parliamentary schedule; he describes it as both the “government’s scarcest resource” and “the most precious commodity Parliament has” (46, 89).  Time, in other words, operationalizes the balance of power between the executive and the legislature.  In the political executive’s ideal world, of course, it would prefer to not even bother with the cumbersome legislative process.  But, while there is much the executive can do through regulation and other means, there really is no substitute for enacting law via statute: so long as it is within constitutional bounds, a statute is legally supreme and can provide a final resolution to an issue (if and until the statute is repealed).  Almost every bullet point in an election platform requires some form of legislative action, so a Government that wishes to make good on its promises will inevitably be drawn to enacting new statutes and revising others.

And that’s where an ambitious Prime Ministerial agenda will have to be squeezed through a very thin opening, single file.  “The executive can work on a multitude of tasks at once,” Brodie explains, [but e]ach chamber of Parliament can only work on one issue at a time” (89).  The limitation of the Parliamentary Calendar – with approximately 12 hours-a-week to conduct government business for 26 weeks-a-year – is itself a hem on any Government seeking to reshape Canadian law.  Brodie notes that, contrary to what one might expect in a system of “executive-dominated legislatures,” only 60% of legislation introduced by the Government garners the Royal Assent necessary to be enacted as law (87).  Why would a Government, holding the confidence of a majority of those in the legislative chamber, have to abandon almost half of the legislation it introduces?  Brodie argues “[t]he simple reason that so much government legislation dies on the order paper is the shortage of parliamentary time” (89).

The scarcity of legislative time works to empower two sets of actors whose agenda may be directly opposed to the Prime Minister’s.  Brodie explains that “[b]oth of these actors – the government backbenchers and the opposition parties – want something in return for agreeing to transact the government’s business, namely time” (84).  In the majority-government context, of course, it is unlikely that the opposition parties will prevail in a straight-up vote on the merits of the Government’s legislation, but delaying that legislation can be a potent weapon, as Brodie explains: “When the opposition parties drag out debate, they slow down the government’s progress and give themselves time to mobilize public opinion” (84).  While he may have been frustrated by opposition intransigence at the time, it is good to see that from a more distant perspective, Brodie appreciates the importance of an institutionalized opposition in the Responsible Government framework: “although it is easy to be cynical about costless adversarialism,” he tells us, “no one would want to live under a regime that discouraged adversarialism in politics” (86).  Is the power to simply delay enough to counter Savoie’s claims of executive-domination?  While it surely adds to our appreciation of the real limits of Prime Ministerial power, skeptics may find it a little too akin to allowing the enemy to win a few battles while the outcome of the war is assured.

Time also factors in the relationship between the Government and the party caucus.  According to Brodie, backbench MPs can use Private Members’ Bills to “disrupt the sitting Prime Minister’s political priorities” (99).  Brodie cites Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth’s attempts to have the House consider abortion-related issues as a prime example, since Harper obviously desired to steer clear of those controversial issues.  Brodie concedes that, since “in some cases, contentious private members bills were easier to get through the House than contentious government bills… an observer might be tempted to suggest that the Harper government was using private member’s time to advance parts of the government’s agenda” (100).  Indeed, this is a critique political scientists James B. Kelly and Kate Puddister have made with regard to the Conservative criminal justice agenda (“Criminal Justice Policy during the Harper Era: Private Member’s Bills, Penal Populism, and the Criminal Code of Canada,” 32(3) Canadian Journal of Law and Society (2017)).  Brodie is skeptical that such coordination was achieved, noting that “the time those committees spent dealing with those bills came at the expense of the government’s own substantial agenda of criminal justice bills” (101).  For his part, Brodie “regularly witnessed the Government House Leader pleading with government backbenchers not to introduce justice-related private members’ business so as to keep the Justice Committee focused on the government’s justice bills” (101).  Brodie’s portrayal of a Government constantly aware of the preciousness of time is convincing and future scholars would be wise to incorporate it as a potential factor for better understanding political behavior.

In his last chapter, Brodie takes on the Donner Prize-winning Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government (2011), written by public administration scholar Peter Aucoin, and his political scientist co-authors Mark Jarvis and Lori Turnbull.  Or, rather, he takes on a somewhat flattened version of it.  Brodie reduces the broader argument of Aucoin et al. to a simple desire for removing partisanship and politics from governance. Brodie sees this as reflecting “public administration’s lingering discomfort with politics itself” (159).  He does not explicitly or fully engage with Democratizing the Constitution’s more interesting terrain, namely its decisive preference for rules over discretion.  Aucoin et al. concede that “it is neither possible nor desirable to prescribe rules for every situation,” but they argue that Canadian politics should rely much more heavily on written rules of conduct, instead of the pockets of prerogatives and discretion – or even “a complete absence of rules” – that can leave “the integrity of the system vulnerable to abuse” (20).  Brodie’s book is full of commentary on the “personal dynamic of politics” – politics is a “team sport,” he tells us repeatedly, and he praises the “great value of loyalists who will be plain in telling you the state of the world” (47, 122).

His vision of politics is one of personal relationships, judgment, and prudence.  Again, it is the informal connections and obligations that matter, not strictly the formal powers that come with any particular role.  In this respect, more theory might have helped better frame this dimension; Brodie only mentions political theorist John von Heyking’s work on political friendship in passing (134; see von Heyking, The Forms of Politics: Artistotle and Plato on Friendship, 2016).  By traveling further down this path, Brodie might have provided a more direct response to Aucoin et al. by demonstrating that people – not rules – are rightly at the centre of Canadian governance.  Brodie’s book provides ample ammunition for this position but does not make it as forcefully or comprehensively as one might have liked.  The desire for a more thorough framing is really just a quibble, or perhaps a wish for a sequel, more than a criticism of the insightful and compelling book we have before us today.

Dennis BakerDennis Baker

Dennis Baker

Dennis Baker is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Guelph in Canada. He is author Not Quite Supreme: The Courts and Coordinate Constitutional Interpretation (McGill-Queen's, 2010).

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