CFN – In the last ten years, more and more political scientists, sociologists and citizens have been raising questions about the state and the future of democracy in Canada. In general, people think that democracy, as they knew it, has undergone major changes, and these changes are continuing and they can no longer find their place in the current political landscape of Canadian democracy.
Often, we forget that democracy’s central element is the “power of decision”. The direct exercise of the power of decision-making (direct democracy) or delegating this power to the people we elect (indirect democracy), is the essence of democracy. If we want to evaluate the state of our democracy and, especially if we want to improve it, we must answer the following questions: Who has and who exercises the real power? ; How is the power exercised? and In favor of whom? The answers to these three questions will help us not only to understand the state of our democracy but also how to act collectively to improve it.
In a series of three columns I will try to cover these three questions in a historical perspective given that democracy evolves in step with economic, social and cultural changes.
The first column will summarize the principles and the institutions that are the foundation of democracy in Canada. The second column will analyse the duties and the responsibilities of those to whom we have delegated our decision-making power, the elected officials. It will also analyse the evolution of the political parties and their role in Canadian democracy. Finally, the third column will analyse the current state of Canadian democracy and identify some trends for the future.
The origins of Democracy
The roots of democracy lie in ancient Greece, specically in the reforms undertaken in the sixth century B.C. in the city of Athens. The term itself comes from ancient Greek and means the power, the sovereignty of the people. At this time it was a form of direct democracy because all the citizens of the city, around 40,000, were entitled to speak and vote at citizen meetings (Ecclesia). However, it should be mentioned that women, slaves and foreigners did not have political rights.
In democracy, citizens have the sovereign power and express their will through the ballot, according to the principle “one person, one vote”. They can exercise this power directly or they may temporarily delegate their power to those elected (representative democracy). In representative democracy all elected officials exercise the power within the assembly that brings them together. The debates within this assembly are of critical importance in democracy because, through discussions, these representatives are supposed to find the best solution for the entire population.
Democracy in Canada
Canada is a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy. The head of state is the Queen of Canada, who is also Queen of Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and several others countries.
The 1867 Constitution Act provides that “the executive government of and over Canada is declared to be vested in the Queen.” Usually, the Queen acts through her representative, the Governor General, whom she appoints on the advice of the Canadian Prime Minister.
The principles of Canadian democracy
Canada is a federal state which consists of ten provinces and three territories. A central government deals with issues common to all parts of the state, while provincial or territorial governments take care of issues pertinent to each component.
The Responsible government principle is the principle that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet members are responsible to the House of Commons and the House of Commons is accountable to the people. Every act of government is done on behalf of the Queen but the authority to act comes, in each case, from the Canadian people.
The Rules of law principle means that everyone is subject to the law. Indeed, nobody, however important or powerful they might be, is above the law; neither the government nor the Prime Minister nor any other Minister nor the Queen nor the Governor General nor the officers of the armed forces nor the Parliament itself. All these individuals or governing bodies don’t have any other powers than those conferred to them by law.
Moreover, it should be mentioned that the courts are protected by the fundamental principle of judicial independence. This principle, older than that of responsible government, has existed for over 300 years, since the time of the adoption by the British Parliament in 1701 of the Act of Settlement, as a result of the English Revolution in 1688.
Any Canadian citizen who wants to exercise and defend democracy in Canada should know and follow these basic principles.
The institutions of democracy in Canada
The Queen, the Head of State, is represented by the Governor General. It is the Head of State, or her representative, who summons the Parliament. No bill becomes law if it doesn’t receive “Royal Assent”.
The Senate usually has 105 Senators appointed by the Governor General on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. The Senate may present any bill, except for the expenditure of public funds or taxes. It may amend or reject any bill as often as it sees fit. No bill can become law unless passed by the Senate.
The House of Commons, consisting of 308 members elected by the people in the 308 ridings in Canada, is the main legislative body of our country.
Following a national election, the Governor General asks the leader of the party who has obtained the largest number of seats in the House of Commons to become Prime Minister and form the Cabinet, commonly called the government. It is the Cabinet which initiates most of the legislation. It is the only body which can prepare and introduce bills in anticipation of government spending or taxes.
Members of Parliament (MPs) and Senators may propose bills, called private bills, that don’t have financial implications.
The executive power belongs to the Queen, represented by the Governor General, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.
The Prime Minister chooses the ministers and they become members of the Queen’s Privy Council. Members of the Privy Council are appointed for life by the Governor General on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. The members of the Privy Council are all current and former ministers, the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and his or her predecessors, former Presidents of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Commons. For all intents and purposes, the Privy Council does not ever meet. The active part is the Cabinet, called the Committee of the Privy Council.
Collectively, the Prime Minister and Cabinet ministers are responsible to the House of Commons for the policies and actions of the entire Cabinet. If a minister does not agree with a policy or a government initiative, he or she must either accept it anyway and defend it or resign. This is called the “collective Cabinet responsibility,” one of the fundamental principles of our system of government.
The judicial power is vested in various courts including the Supreme Court of Canada, created by an act of Parliament in 1875. The same act created the Federal Court of Appeal, the Federal Court of Canada and the Tax Court of Canada.
The provisions of the Canadian Constitution preserve the independence of judges according to the principle of judicial independence.
Without a good understanding of these principles and institutions, one can’t understand how democracy has become the target of populist leaders and manipulative politicians. Canada is a parliamentary democracy and without proper functioning of its institutions, including Parliament, it is not a real democracy, even if we continue to vote occasionally.