My subject is the governmental process at our federal level. I do not claim to offer a learned dissertation. I will give rather the illusions and disillusions of a practising politician, of a practioner who has tried to observe and understand how we are being governed but has not cluttered his mind with facts exposed or opinions expressed in learned journals, as will probably be all too apparent. I will be stating some propositions rather starkly, without scholarly qualifications. That may have the advantage of provoking discussions, even if I am uttering something less than eternal truth.

When one discusses how well our governmental institutions are performing, it is necessary to recognize the change that has occurred in the conditions or context in which these institutions are performing. It is hardly appropriate to compare the performance of legislatures and governments in the last century with the performance of those today. Changes in society and values have obviously increased enormously the difficulties of legislatures and governments.

Fifty years ago, citizens in Canada expected little of their governments outside limited areas of responsibility. Governments were assumed to be inefficient and touched by corruption or tarnished by patronage, but this mattered little to the citizen because he did not ordinarily expect much from government, unless he was looking for patronage. Patronage was a fact of life and was taken for granted. There was plenty of time to argue or exploit the great questions, like provincial rights in 1896 and reciprocity with the United States in 1911.

Fifty years ago, the citizen had no more respect for the politician than he has today, but then it did not matter much because few expected or demanded much from politicians. The role of government was so much more limited than it is today.

It is not merely that the role of government has expanded enormously, however. Because of changes in our society, it is much more difficult than it was to find a consensus upon which the country can be governed. The effect of the breakdown of tradition has been vast in itself. Party loyalty, for example, is a very thin reed for a government to rely on today. When tradition breaks down and voters get their impressions from the radio or television, governments acquire powerful tools to manipulate public opinion, but a public opinion that can be manipulated is volatile and shifting, so a consensus becomes more difficult to maintain.

Achieving a consensus becomes particularly difficult as more voters do their own thinking. More than 100 years ago, Walter Bagehot suggested that the British had stable and the French unstable government, because the French were more intelligent and insisted on thinking for themselves. De Tocqueville had a different explanation when he compared France and the United States, but Bagehot had a point. I have long speculated whether democracy would work if a certain percentage of a country obtained a university education and insisted on thinking for themselves. Fortunately for government in Canada, in this respect, university education has not yet caused too many Canadians to think for themselves.

Nevertheless, consensus is more difficult to achieve than it used to be when most voters inherited their views. When voters do not follow tradition, they must be persuaded. But even with television that is not easy when society consists of highly organized and well financed interest groups, all pushing their own interests and reluctant to compromise unless it is made worthwhile to do so. The volatility I mentioned does not apply to the particular interests of special interest groups.

The context in which our legislatures and governments operate has changed greatly. In assessing how well they are doing, one must therefore ask how well any other democratic system would work. One must also ask whether a democratic system that worked well for a simpler and more traditional society is the most appropriate for our society of competing interest groups that gets most of its impressions, if not its opinions, from television. I only raise the question at this stage to make the point that we are asking parliamentary responsible government to operate in conditions and to perform roles that were not anticipated as parliamentary responsible government evolved.

Some time ago, I argued that we must make a choice between all-pervasive government and parliamentary responsible government, that we cannot have both. In 1977, we had The Economist’s lament for British parliamentary responsible government based on reasons somewhat different from mine. However, not everyone shares this gloom. In discussing the failure of the Canadian House of Commons to control government expenditures, The Globe and Mail, in a 1978 editorial, was inclined to blame not the institution but the personnel: “Those sleek, well-salaried, well-pensioned gentlemen don’t give a damn how much of our money is wasted.” Professor John Meisel of Queen’s University has expressed the view that “we are eminently governable and not really overloaded but we do have some problems.”

The contrast between the shrill lament of The Economist and the gentle accolade of professor Meisel is striking. For The Economist, parliamentary responsible government for all practical purposes no longer exists in Britain. There is instead a dictatorship of the party leadership enforced by party whips. The Economist’s critique is concerned “less with the jaded cries for electoral reform as such than with the undignified, inefficient, undemocratic and, above all, unparliamentary government that is Britain’s lot today.” Professor Meisel reaches the relatively optimistic conclusion that in Ottawa, “the legislature, the cabinet and the bureaucracy have shown reassuring capacity to undergo reform and adjust to new conditions.”

The Economist, in effect, says parliamentary responsible government is a sham and a delusion in Britain. Professor Meisel believes that while we have some problems in Canada, our institutions have proved adaptable. The only really serious worry professor Meisel seems to have is whether we can adapt to the strains on our federal system, which is a different question than the performance of our federal parliamentary and governmental institutions.

I must say immediately that The Economist’s savage attack on the mother of Parliaments would seem far from inappropriate if made, with some changes of emphasis and some modifications, on the Parliament and government of Canada. I have great respect for professor Meisel, but I find it hard to believe he is writing about the Parliament I worked in for 11 years, and the governments I have been watching for many more years. In my opinion, we no longer have parliamentary responsible government in Ottawa.

I assert that parliamentary responsible government is not fitted for what it is being asked to do; that both the government and the Parliament are overloaded to the point that we have poor government; and that Parliament cannot cope with government.

I assert that parliamentary responsible government is not fitted for what it is being asked to do; that both the government and the Parliament are overloaded to the point that we have poor government; and that Parliament cannot cope with government. Professor Meisel does not believe the system is overloaded. The Economist does not seem to believe that overloading is the problem, either. It seems to believe that the basic problem is the tyranny of the executive and the vested interests of the dominant parties in the present system.

“Being a British member of Parliament is a whipped, degrading and self-perpetuating profession, not because it should or need be, but because it is,” says The Economist. That is a little strongly put, but I know what the editors of The Economist mean when they so describe the condition of members of Parliament. I agree that we must be concerned about the domination of Parliament by the executive. “A great test of the freedom and power of any legislature,” says The Economist, “is whether it can control its own timetable and whether it can extract information from the executive.” Personally, I do not believe it would be realistic to expect our House of Commons to control its own timetable much more than it does. I expect the Government of Canada would be somewhat surprised to be told that it is in control of the timetable of the House, although it certainly has a high degree of control over the business the House may consider.

The government does have a high degree of control over information it gives out. The House of Commons could theoretically force the government to give information, but normally the House is controlled by the government. Unnecessary secrecy is a cause for concern that can be corrected.

But I believe that above all we must be concerned about the overloading of both the government and Parliament. There are many reforms required that are important, possible and very worthwhile, but there may well be no way in which we can expect government to do what it is trying to do today and yet give us dignified, efficient, democratic and, above all, parliamentary government, if I may transform the lament of The Economist into a description of the goal it would consider desirable.

It is certainly something to read an eminent British journal of opinion predicting for the Britain of the future that “the central Parliament … would distance itself from the executive either by a total separation of power and of voting slips, as in America, or some more carefully drafted version of the half-way house attempted by de Gaulle and Debré.” That is certainly something, coming from the editorial heirs of Walter Bagehot, but I am not yet persuaded that the United States or French constitutions are any better suited to provide dignified, efficient, democratic and, above all, parliamentary government than is our existing constitution. Leaving aside the question of dignity, it remains to be seen how parliamentary the French system is, and we certainly have good reason to doubt the efficiency of the United States system.

Let me describe, however, the way things seem to me to work or to not work in Ottawa. Consider for a moment what we are asking ministers to do. They represent a constituency, they must seek re-election of themselves and their government, and they must therefore devote time and energy to being politicians; they ought to see that their vast sprawling departments operate effectively and report to the House of Commons on their activities; and they must make policy decisions covering an enormous range of subjects. There is no need for me to describe the range of decisions government, that is, ministers, must make in Ottawa these days. Of course, they get expert advice, but under our system they ought to make their own decisions on matters that are frequently of enormous complexity.

Ministers can and do organize themselves into committees and thus divide or share their work to some extent, but they are collectively responsible, and even if they are prepared to delegate a good deal of decision-making responsibility to cabinet committees, they just do not have the time to be constituency representatives, active politicians, overseers of their departments and intelligent policy-makers on the scale being undertaken. For me it is a case of res ipsa loquitur. I do not believe the present deplorable condition of our country can be explained simply in terms of the capacity or lack of capacity of members of our federal governments.

Despite the use of flow charts, computers, consultants and memoranda, the government in Ottawa is trying to do far more than it can do intelligently and effectively. It is bound the make many ill-considered policy decisions and it cannot effectively control its own administration. Improvements can be made; important improvements. The auditor general has recommended more effective financial controls. This is valuable advice. It will not, however, solve the problem of ministers responsible to the House of Commons trying to make and implement policy in the myriad areas into which government has entered or is entering.

It is not simply the scope and complexity of contemporary government that strains the capacity of government. The principle of responsibility or answerability means that so much more comes to the top for decision than would be the case in administering a business corporation, where responsibility can be delegated and results measured in terms of profit and loss.

If the ministers have put themselves in an impossible position, consider the poor members of Parliament. Parliament is not fitted for controlling the king of all-pervasive government we have today. It cannot cope with it effectively. This would be so even if the House of Commons had not lost financial control of government back in 1965, when it accepted a time limitation on the consideration of Estimates. When I entered the house in the fall of 1967, the consideration of Estimates seemed to me a farce, because ministers were answering only questions they chose to answer, knowing that because of the time limitation they no longer had to give satisfactory explanations in order to get their Estimates passed. I founded an emasculated House of Commons that was still capable of greatness on occasion but was no longer in effective control of the public purse.

There have been suggestions as to how the consideration of Estimates could be improved. Some of these have merit, but they would not restore financial control to the House of Commons. They might well improve surveillance. Frankly, I do not know how the House of Commons can be restored to effective supervision of the government, how we can restore government really responsible to Parliament, except by cutting back on the role of the government and thereby making it possible for Parliament to cope.

I am not one of those who glorifies the Parliament of past generations. Except on great occasion, I suspect the House of Commons was usually a pedestrian place, but it did not much matter, because government was not so involved in the lives of Canadians; and the House of Commons could bring government into line when it wished to do so because it could delay the passage of Estimates as long as it liked. Under current conditions, there is no way of getting back that unlimited power to delay Estimates. No government would agree to that. The government does not have enough parliamentary time now to get its legislation passed.

But even if — and this is a basic point – Parliament somehow regained its old power to control the purse, it could not effectively control the manifold operations of the contemporary government in Ottawa. The cabinet cannot exercise such control. How could the members of the House of Commons?

There can be improvements, important improvements, in Parliament and government. Freedom of information legislation could produce more open government and give Parliament and the public access to much information that the government now keeps secret under claim of confidentiality. Doubtless, too, the House can be better organized. More staff could help committees probing into governmental operations. But the fundamental lack of effective control would remain. Bear in mind that subject to the rules of the House, the government controls the House and the business before it. We do not have a separation of powers, as in the United States. The House of Commons and the government are not normally adversaries. Only the government and opposition parties are normally adversaries. The majority of the House supports the government or the government resigns and calls an election. Whether the United States’ presidential system with its separation of powers is more fit for the current scope of government is another question.

It is a wonder that the House of Commons does not destroy the minds and souls of its members. I have great respect for the members, by and large, and the effort they make. Many save themselves by spending little time in the House except for Question Period and by devoting themselves to serving their constituencies or pursuing subjects of particular interest, in House committees or elsewhere. The hard and excellent work done by many members of Parliament is a tribute to them. There are few, however, who are not seriously troubled by the frustrations of Parliament.

It is a wonder that the House of Commons does not destroy the minds and souls of its members. I have great respect for the members, by and large, and the effort they make. Many save themselves by spending little time in the House except for Question Period and by devoting themselves to serving their constituencies or pursuing subjects of particular interest, in House committees or elsewhere. The hard and excellent work done by many members of Parliament is a tribute to them. There are few, however, who are not seriously troubled by the frustrations of Parliament.

Opposition members know that their ability to control the government is limited to the sort of digging that calls for special talents; to putting the heat on the government on issue of current public interest and concern; and to delaying the passage of legislation or forcing changes through delaying tactics, which is an important but not an inspiring role. Canadians are electing a House of Commons on the assumption it can control the government, but they are in fact electing a House of Commons that cannot control the government, and this subjects the members to criticism they do not deserve.

I am not suggesting the Parliament is useless or that the members are wasting their time. The role of Parliament is still important, and also the work of its members. My point is that parliamentary control of governments is not effective, and it is difficult to see how it can be made effective because of the vast scope of government activities.

On the other hand, Parliament has become unsatisfactory to a government trying to do everything under the sun, begrudging time its ministers must spend in the House to the neglect of their other work, and being constantly frustrated by the difficulty in getting its legislative program adapted. It is perhaps not surprising that some ministers seem to believe that when an electorate gives a government a mandate, it is the duty of Parliament to respect that mandate and pass the government’s legislation and adopt its spending programs with reasonable dispatch.

On this view, the House of Commons would become a place where ministers answer questions they choose to answer and where legislation sought by the government and subjects raised by the opposition could be discussed for limited periods of time. Parliament would become a combination of a bear-pit session and a discussion group. That has not happened yet because opposition parties have fought it, but that is the direction in which Parliament is sliding.

I do not agree that the basic parliamentary problem could be resolved by the House of Commons regaining control of the purse, which through the centuries was the basis of parliamentary control of the executive. Such control is still essential to parliamentary responsible government, but such control even if it could be regained, would not enable the House of Commons to control effectively the activities of all-pervasive government. If the cabinet has lost effective control, how could the House of Commons hope to establish it?

More and more matters, for all practical purposes, are being decided by and implemented by the bureaucracy. This is inevitable in view of the broadening scope of federal government activities. Such an opinion is a change on my part, because formerly I believed, based on my experience in Nova Scotia, that control for the bureaucracy was not a serious problem. I no longer believe this. We are losing control by democratically elected people both at the parliamentary and the ministerial level. In Sweden, resentment against the power of the bureaucracy has been said to have been a major factor in changes of government.

If we want to retain — or, more accurately, regain — parliamentary responsible government in Ottawa, we have to accept a more limited role for government in Ottawa.

There is, I believe, only one choice. We can accept the loss of parliamentary responsible government or we must accept a more limited role for our federal government. If we want the federal government to run just about everything, we will end up with a bureaucracy running just about everything, with ministers floundering more and more, losing more and more public respect and becoming steadily less in charge. If we want to retain — or, more accurately, regain — parliamentary responsible government in Ottawa, we have to accept a more limited role for government in Ottawa.

What is involved is recognition that democratic responsible government and all-pervasive government in Ottawa are not compatible. They cannot exist together. We cannot have both. If we want all-pervasive government, we must accept more and more government by improvisation or by bureaucrats who will become increasingly inaccessible to scrutiny. If we want democratic government with decisions being made by ministers responsible to Parliament, then we must accept a more limited view of the role and activities of our national government and accept an arrangement in which decision-making is decentralized.

I am not referring here simply to provincial governments and municipal governments being given more authority, although there is doubtless room for some desirable readjustment of authority between the different levels of government. The solution must be more drastic, because provincial and municipal government would soon run into the difficulties now encountered by Ottawa, if they have not already done so.

We would have to be content to let people run their own affairs to a greater extent than we are today. I am not arguing for a return to laissez-faire and the abandonment of all government regulation of the economy. I am arguing that the government of Canada cannot do well all it is trying to do and that we would be wise to get the federal government out of areas of responsibility that are reasonably self-regulating or can be made so. That is the point, of course, about the so-called free market. It is frequently not really free. It is certainly imperfect, but it does permit firms and people to make decisions. It is a form of decentralized decision-making.

The question to be asked whenever we are considering governmental intervention is not whether what we are seeking to improve is working perfectly but whether something else could work better, enable people to have more control over their own affairs, make our society more democratic, bearing in mind the load our government and Parliament are already carrying.

As I emphasized, I am not suggesting that government should turn the country over to economic barons to divide it among themselves. I do not believe a society with great inequalities of wealth is a healthy society. Nor do I admire a society whose principal goal is making money.

Those are different questions than the one I am discussing. We should be concerned about the goals and the values of our society, but I believe we must pursue our goals without overloading our democracy. We ought not to overload our politicians with responsibilities they cannot satisfactorily discharge. Federal politicians are overloaded today, and this should concern all of us. We are asking more of government than parliamentary responsible government can perform.

Some believe the need of all-pervasive government activity is essential — so that government can control the giant organizations that exist today, and provide the myriad services they believe government must provide. If so, they must choose: They must abandon parliamentary responsible government. To me that would be the wrong choice, but those who argue for a larger and larger role for government in Ottawa must recognize parliamentary responsible government is not fitted for the job. To me, it is urgent that Canadians recognize this simple truth.

I do not pretend it is easy to cut back on the scope of government in Canada when many are demanding more government activity. Given the difficulties, one will say: Why talk about this at all? The beginning of wisdom is understanding. It is important we understand what is happening to us. We should understand that we do not have dignified, efficient, democratic and, above all, parliamentary government. While we can improve what we have, we cannot create effective democratic government simply by changing the system. We have run up against the limits of human capacity to be both efficient and parliamentary. We ought to be concerned.

I do not wish to suggest that everything is wrong at the federal level of politics. I have already paid tribute to the fine work done by some members of Parliament in pushing good causes. I repeat my statement that being a member of Parliament is far from being a waste of time, even if a member cannot perform the traditional role of controlling the government or change very much what the government puts through Parliament. Parliament has roles other than controlling the government.

An important role for Opposition members of Parliament is to offer the public an alternative government. Until recently, the House of Commons was becoming less and less appropriate as a forum for that role, because more and more voters were forming their impressions from events and discussions covered by television outside the House. Question Period in the House might be good theatre for those present (it was of little use in getting information), but what counted was generally not what had taken place in the House as much as the performance of the actors before the cameras outside the House.

I was always skeptical as to how much television in the House of Commons would change this, but experience to date suggests that, however unpleasant televising the proceedings in the House may make working conditions there for members, it may make the House once again a good forum in which parties can discharge some of their political functions. One of those is to provide the public with an alternative to the government. If Parliament cannot control government, it may help voters decide whether they should change the government.

Political parties are an important aspect of Parliament, and consequently their state of health is important to Parliament and to government. Admittedly they are far from perfect, but I believe they have become somewhat more open and democratic than formerly. Improvements in election financing and the control of election expenses have been important reforms. So also has been provision for leadership review and the increasing attention parties are giving to the democratic choice of delegates to party conventions. We can all think of areas for further reform — such as the procedure for nominating candidates — but parties are aware of the importance of being perceived to be open and democratic, and this will continue the momentum of party reform.

Some are concerned that our political parties do not offer voters a clearer ideological choice or offer more ideological leadership. This is not the lament of The Economist in its article. “Little did Bagehot realize,” says The Economist, “that a system designed for Whig and Tory gentle folk would fall into the hands of competing 20th century ideologues, condemning Britain to permanently inefficient sectarianism.” A country as diverse as Canada would be an a fortiori case for the importance of political parties not emphasizing ideological difference for the sake of ideological differences.

A major role of national political parties in Canada is to promote consensus and reconcile differences. This role was probably never more important than today. How well our national parties are performing this role may be debatable, but they are trying. They have the motivation because they must succeed in this if they are to succeed at the polls.

Parties are criticized because, it is said, they do not persuade the best people to run. Those who make that criticism should try to persuade those supposedly best people to run — especially if they fear they may have to sit in the opposition. In any event, it is one thing to nominate bright people. It is another thing to elect them. Many bright people could not be elected dogcatchers.

Parties are criticized because, it is said, they do not persuade the best people to run. Those who make that criticism should try to persuade those supposedly best people to run — especially if they fear they may have to sit in the opposition. In any event, it is one thing to nominate bright people. It is another thing to elect them. Many bright people could not be elected dogcatchers.

How well does the House of Commons represent the country and reflect the various opinions and interests in the country? Very imperfectly, but this does not bother me as much as it would some others. I should make my bias clear here. It is better to have a government following a coherent program and providing efficient government based on the views of even a substantial minority than it is to have a government floundering around ineffectively, trying to hold together an uneasy and shifting coalition of groups of differing views and taking the country nowhere. We have so many tensions and reasons for instability in our country that we have to accept, in my view, the simplifying role of our constituency system — simplifying in the sense that it exaggerates for the time being the importance of certain views as the basis of government. I believe this simplification process is made somewhat more acceptable by the federal nature of the country, which permits governments representing somewhat different views to co-exist.

There can be no such thing as Parliament perfectly reflecting the diversity of opinion in the country, and I am prepared to accept less representativeness than we could theoretically achieve in order to get a tolerable degree of coherence and stability in government. I am prejudiced by the amount of incoherent and poor government we have received at the federal level, despite the presence of some able people, and I do not wish to see a bad situation made worse.

In summary, I believe that some aspects of our federal parliamentary governmental operations have been improved, that others can be readily improved, that some federal institutions such as political parties are more open and democratic than they used to be, but that the basic institution, parliamentary responsible government, is not working in a dignified, efficient, democratic and, above all, parliamentary way because it is seriously overloaded. We are asking too much of the parliamentary process and the people we elect to operate it.

Photo: Then Progressive Conservative Leader Robert Stanfield reading newspaper, 1972. (CP PHOTO/Ted Grant)

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Robert L. Stanfield
Hon. Robert L. Stanfield was premier of Nova Scotia from 1956-1967, and leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada from 1967-1976. He served as Canada’s first ambassador-at-large in 1979. He was a member of the board of the Institute for Research on Public Policy. He died in 2003 at age 89.

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