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State of the Nation



Articles / State of the Nation / 2004 - 2006

State of the Nation

The Annual John A. Macdonald Lecture, 2004
(Hart House, University of Toronto, Wednesday, January 14, 2004)

I never was a student at the University of Toronto, and I was uncertain for a long time what Hart House was or what its function was. But whenever I come into the building, I am struck by what a tremendous asset to the university community it is, and by the rich variety of functions even I have attended here. Now that I know a little more about the role Hart House plays in the university, and how much you its members do to maintain it, it is a pleasure to be invited to speak in such surroundings and such company.

We are here tonight to commemorate the 189th birthday of John A. Macdonald, politician and statesman, born 11 January 1815. He was not, as it happens, a supporter of this university when its establishment was being debated in the 1840s. He preferred to support a collection of sectarian religious colleges, and he denounced Robert Baldwin's "great godless university, in which it was proposed to teach men everything but that which it most concerned them to know." But he favoured good dinners, and good company, and the commemoration of his country's past, mingled perhaps with some consideration of its present state and even its future course. So I think he might have put aside his disapproval and smiled upon our gathering.

I want tonight to consider Macdonald the politician and Macdonald the parliamentarian. I think perhaps we make too much of John A. Macdonald the father of his country, the visionary statesman, the one peerless leader carrying the country on his solitary understanding of its fate and its future.

On several of the crucial national choices, it was not that way at all. Actually, John A. Macdonald was on the wrong side of some of the vital turning points that built the Canadian nation. In 1847-8, when Canada was on the eve of achieving responsible government, which made the government answerable to the people's elected representatives, he was actually on the other side, preferring to work with appointed officials from Britain over taking the risk that the elected people might not support his side. In 1864, when federalism and a union of the Canadian colonies were in the air, Macdonald opposed the program until the last minute. "If we have a union it must not be a federal one." Until the last moment, he voted against it with a group of resisters, most of whose members became anti-confederates.

But, as I said, Macdonald never stood against the tide long. When responsible government came in 1848, he was one of the first of the tories to see how conservative policies - and politicians -could thrive within the framework of responsible government. In 1864, when George Brown and George-Etienne Cartier built the Ontario-Québec coalition based on federalism (for Québec) and representation by population (for Ontario), Macdonald, who had opposed both, either had to come in or be left out. He came in.

That's why I say it is not always the vision, the master plan for Canada, which we should attribute to John A. Macdonald. What he brought in when he came in, was the skills to get a deal made and ratified. What a great parliamentarian he was.

It is unfashionable today to appreciate parliamentary skills. Most of us look on legislatures these days as useless talking shops, the helpless tools of who ever happens to be in control of the most seats. These days we prefer leadership…. We look with pity on former cabinet ministers like Sheila Copps or Stéphane Dion, who are in the humiliating position of being merely Members of Parliament, now that the patronage of the omnipotent leader shines on them no more. Today leaders and would-be leaders, like Brian Mulroney, Stephen Harper, Jack Layton, David Orchard, and Belinda Stronach often prefer to stay out of parliament entirely, unless they can enter as leaders. And of course defeated leaders, from Jean Chrétien to Ernie Eves, shun opposition and leave politics altogether if they cannot have leadership power. Being a mere MP - that's for losers.

It was a bit different in John A. Macdonald's world. Macdonald's renown depends partly on his political longevity. But he had such a long career because he was there in opposition as well as in government, out of power as well as wielding it. He was first elected in 1844, still there in 1891 -- forty-seven of his seventy-six years, and not always in power. He knew an MP could have influence power from the backbench, even from opposition.
So Macdonald's first parliamentary skill is simply experience. He had been in elective politics more than 20 years before confederation, as well as the quarter-century after it. He had the toughness to keep going to gain the experience. Despite his drinking habits, his family woes, the frequent needs of his law practice, and all the burdens of his private life, he stuck it out. He could have had a lucrative law and business career, he could have been a judge, he could have had all manner of Canadian and imperial appointments, but he stuck to his parliamentary career.

With the experience came the expertise. Macdonald was a small town lawyer in his private career, but as an MP he soon mastered the legislative process and the rules of procedure, and as Attorney General he became an expert in constitutional drafting, government administration, and even constitutional law.

But above all, it seems to me, his parliamentary skills, his leadership skills, were personal ones. In a committee, in a legislature, in a smoke-filled backroom, or a public meeting, wherever decisions were actually being hammered out, Macdonald was in his element. I don't find myself thinking of John A. Macdonald when I ponder what this country needs or should be today. But whenever I find myself at a boardroom table, or a meeting of my kids' school parents' council, or any conference session where rival views and positions and ambitions need to be worked out, I do find myself wondering how John A would finesse this situation and get all kinds of disparate people to think that what he wanted was actually what they had wanted all along.

More than anything else, Macdonald had the mind of the master parliamentarian. He once listed his occupation as "cabinet-maker," and he was good at finding the right ministers, but what he was really good at was putting together and preserving majorities - consensus-maker rather than cabinet-maker, you might say.

When David Thompson, an unrepentant old clear grit farmer-politician, returned to the Commons from a long illness in the 1880s, he got brief, distracted greetings from his party leaders, Edward Blake, a fastidious Toronto barrister, and Richard Cartwright, a dour and rigid Kingston financier. "Davey, old man," cried John A. Macdonald a moment later, "I'm glad to see you back." Thompson had never in his life voted with Macdonald, but he admitted it went increasingly against the grain that his enemy was better company than his friends.

Dozens of similar stories testify to Macdonald's persuasive charm. Joseph Rymal, another grit rival, marvelled over Macdonald's ability to cajole his supporters in the house. "Good or bad, able or unable, weak or strong, he wraps them around his finger as you would a thread. I have seen some of them ... denounce the measures of government and say "Well, I can't go that!" and still I have known these gentlemen long enough to believe that they would go it, and after there was a caucus they did go it every time."

A colleague put it more admiringly. "Often when council was perplexed and you had made things smooth and plain, I have thought, 'There are wheels in that man that have never been moved yet,'" said Archibald McLelan, the one-time anti-confederate from Nova Scotia who sat in Macdonald's cabinets for years. For his part, Macdonald once joked that his ideal cabinet would be "all highly respectable parties whom I could sent to the penitentiary if I wished." Years later, beset by ministerial scandals, Macdonald was not amused by an opposition member who pointed out that his cabinet now met all his requirements - except the respectability!

Macdonald was good on the floor of the house too. He was not notably an orator. His great strength was a kind of casually wielded authority. During the confederation debates, an opposition member tried to score a point by tying Macdonald to some procedure in a long-ago debate over a temperance bill. "I don't remember," confessed Macdonald. "I don't generally go for temperance bills," and in the laughter that followed, the house acknowledged his authority to ignore the challenge.

It was the same out on the hustings. He wielded the kind of casual authority that built confidence, even when his other habits should have undermined it. I'm sure you have heard this story but I cannot resist it. Campaigning once, weeks into a ongoing drunk, Macdonald once horrified an election crowd by vomiting on the stage when he got up to answer his opponent -- and then won back them by saying "I don't know how it is, but every time I hear my opponent speak it turns my stomach."

It was not all laughter, however. Macdonald with a majority at his back used it without compunction. Joseph Rymal had been a popular and respected member of parliament for decades when Macdonald gerrymandered his seat out of existence in 1885. "Mr. Speaker, I am not made of such material that I can beg for justice," declared Rymal. " I can ask you in a plain and manly way to do what is right, but I cannot fawn and be a sycophant." Macdonald was unmoved, and his majority voted Rymal's seat into oblivion. When he had that majority behind him, he was tough tough tough.

But note that crucial phrase - "when he had that majority behind him." Macdonald was a great leader, and a great prime minister, because he was also a weak one. What drove him to greatness in parliament was always having to worry about getting, and particularly about keeping, that majority.

It's not like that today. Holding majorities together is an unknown concept in our politics. In an election today, someone wins 50% plus one of the seats in the legislature (generally with much less of the popular vote), and he or she can do anything for the next four or five years. Prime Minister Martin, Premier McGuinty, these people do not need to worry about holding together their majorities. They have one guaranteed until their term is up, and they never need to look over their shoulder.

Macdonald, by contrast, worked in a truly parliamentary context. In a functioning parliament, the unit of power is the caucus, not the leader. In a parliamentary system, it is the majority of the elected representatives of the people who put a government into power and who can put it out, not once every four or five years, but at any moment.

Consider the very nadir of John A. Macdonald's parliamentary career. In 1873 he was forced from office in the Pacific Scandal when the House of Commons rose up to repudiate him and his government. But Macdonald had fought and won a general election just the year before. His conservatives had a majority of 50 seats. Today, in such a scandal, we would need some unelected ethic commissioner to wring his hands over it all. In 1873, however, governments answered to the House. A big bloc of Conservative backbenchers decided they could not stomach Macdonald's behaviour, and they brought his government down rather than accept responsibility for keeping crooks in office.

That kind of repudiation, or the risk of that, was the constant context of Macdonald's parliamentary life. 1885 was the first great crisis of confederation: the CPR was on the brink of collapse; the second NorthWest uprising was about to start, and the whole National Policy was at stake. Macdonald had a majority, but no certainty at all that he could get his program through the Commons. The backbenchers were restless, and Macdonald had to fight every day to keep his majority intact and behind him. It was touch and go - which is why Berton's railroad books, and the film made of them, made such great drama out of the parliamentary battles. The fate of the government and the country really hung on the outcome of those parliamentary maneuvres and confidence votes. In Macdonald's parliaments, putting together a majority was a skill to be reckoned with, because in parliament a leader had to do it every day. His political life depended on being able to do it again and again, issue by issue. Macdonald did it for forty years and more.

Canadian political history provides scores of examples of this kind of testing of parliamentary and public leadership. Alexander Mackenzie, our second prime minister, ceased to be Liberal party leader when his caucus grew tired of him and decided they preferred Edward Blake. Mackenzie Bowell, third short-live prime minister after Macdonald's death in 1891, was removed when cabinet and caucus decided he was going to lose the looming election to Laurier. They dumped him out of the prime minister's office and put in Tupper - not that it staved off Laurier, who swept the country a few weeks later!

You may say I am talking of ancient times, that all this is a relic of a different era. I want to assure you it is not. Consider the situation of Tony Blair, Prime Minister of Great Britain, with a huge majority. His Labor Party has 165 more seats than the combined opposition. Yet over 100 Labour backbenchers voted against Britain's participation in the war in Iraq. And if Tony Blair continues to look wounded and unpopular as the next election grows near, that 100 will swell into a caucus majority, and someone else will be leading the Labor Party. Tony Blair is a powerful force in his party - as powerful as Margaret Thatcher was in hers, and remember what became of her, when her leadership put the backbenchers' re-election prospects into doubt.

It is the same in parliamentary democracies as different and as far-flung as Japan, Ireland, Australia, Israel, and Poland. If the party leader, even the prime minister, loses the confidence of the party caucus, he is gone. This is not merely the parliamentary context that John A Macdonald excelled in. It is the context of all functioning parliamentary democracies.

Which raises the question: can we call Canada a functioning parliamentary democracy?

I think this could be a hopeful time for the revival of parliamentary processes in Canada. There is a great deal of truth in the lament that we have a democratic deficit in Canada today. On the other hand, there is a great fervour for change, a great desire among Canadians for improvement in the ways we govern ourselves. Canadians have the will for better government, though we seem to be struggling for the way.

I must say I don't think much of most of the solutions proposed. I put it to you that the problem is parliamentary; it is in the Commons and the legislature. And that is where the solutions must lie. I don't have much faith in solutions that look elsewhere: that propose rejigging the Senate, of fiddling with the voting system, or rigging the dates of elections, or dreaming up constituent assemblies, or having endless referenda and recall initiatives. The problem is parliamentary. The problem is in the legislature, and can be fixed there

Prime Minister Martin has made much of the democratic deficit. But the only concrete solution he has suggested is what he calls "free votes" That only means, however, that the prime minister will allow free votes when he judges it convenient, and only on issues that are not important to him. What's free about a vote if you have to ask permission from the boss to exercise your freedom? The essence of democracy is accountability, and you can't build accountability from the top down.

I don't look for much change from the new people around the prime minister. Indeed I think there is a more hopeful prospect in the people he has recently demoted. The only criterion for political advancement, under Martin as under Chrétien, is loyalty to the leader. But look at the list of talented, experienced, ambitious, powerful people Martin has stocked the backbenches with. Stephane Dion, Sheila Copps, Martin Cauchon, Don Boudria, John Manley, and on and on. Personally I hope they stay on in parliament. I hope they become independent voices whispering rebellious thoughts in the back of the caucus room. They should be saying, okay, we as the majority caucus support Prime Minister Martin and his policies today. But if we as the majority caucus start to change our mind, Prime Minister Martin will have to go with us. Or get out of the way.

Remember; the majority caucus in any parliament constitutes the majority of the elected representatives of the people. If they cannot have political opinions, and if they cannot act on them, then bluntly, what is a parliament for? In our role as citizens, as constituents, as voters, as commentators, we need to be telling the MPs who represent us that we do expect them to represent us, and not to represent the Prime Minister back to us.

There is other side to that. We need to take a close and skeptical look at the extra-parliamentary process by which party leaders are chosen in Canada today. Canadian leaders treat their caucuses of elected MPs as nobodies because, they say, they are accountable to a different group, to a larger mandate; they represent the party at large. But what mandate is that? Today leadership selection in our political parties is nothing but massive competitive vote buying. We are told that Paul Martin has the support of much of the Liberal caucus even when Jean Chrétien was prime minister, but the caucus never had the courage to say so. Martin is prime minister because he and several hundred thousand of his friends bought party memberships or had bought for them. But now the convention is over, and it will not gather again for years. Who is Mr. Martin (or any of our political leaders) accountable to?

These races go on forever, they cost millions, and they have little or nothing to do with the actual leadership capacities of individual candidates (remember Kim Campbell? Remember Stockwell Day?) Increasingly, the corruption in the process is obvious. The recent RCMP raids at the British Columbia legislature seem to involve mass purchases of Liberal party memberships - possible paid for with laundered drug money. And the process is smelly even when it is not illegal. Packing membership lists just before a leadership vote, with ethnic club members or evangelical congregations or the occupants of Gaspé graveyards, has a long sordid history in Canadian leadership politics. Consider the Ernie Eves example. When Ernie Eves became Ontario Conservative leader and Premier of Ontario, 35, 000 delegates voted. Months later, his campaign made the obligatory financial disclosure. Among its expenses: paying for 16,000 memberships. Why do we listen when politicians tell us that just because lots of votes are cast, leadership races are a triumph of grassroots democracy? We have to recall that just because lots of people vote does not make a process democratic. Democracy is representation and democracy is accountability.

I think Canadians who care about democracy need to consider repudiating the leadership processes that are standard today in all our parties federal and provincial. We should not support party leadership drives. We should not buy memberships or contribute funds whenever a leadership race is underway. If we value parliamentary democracy, we must question the legitimacy of the whole process. At the same time, we should resolve tell our MP that he or she was elected to represent us, not to be a passive tally stick for the party leader to toss in whenever a vote is taken.

John A. Macdonald loved power. He did everything he could to concentrate power in the prime minister's office. He once confronted a backer who wanted a favour but who had previously spoken against a project that was dear to Macdonald. Why should I give you this favour, Macdonald asked? Are you really a loyal supporter and worthy of this reward?

Robert Dickey, the member in question, assured the leader he was indeed a loyal party man. "I shall support you whenever I think you are right," he said.

"Anyone will support me when they think I am right," Macdonald retorted. "What I want is a man that will support me when I am wrong!"

Today of course, party leaders do not need to be John A Macdonald to know that their backbenchers will support them, even when they are wrong. John A. Macdonald might well have enjoyed such unfettered power. But he was a great prime minister, and a great parliamentarian, and someone who deserves to be saluted on his 189th birthday, precisely because he never did have that power. We get great prime ministers when we have great parliaments. I'd like to see one come again.

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd 2004

The Liberal Leadership "Race":  Let's Call the Whole Thing Off
(I wrote this opinion piece for The Hill Times, the newspaper of Parliament Hill, It was published on March 13, 2006 - but on their website it's behind a paywall, for subscribers only. Here's the text.)

Frank McKenna won't run. John Manley won't run. Brian Tobin says no. Allan Rock doesn't want it.

As the Liberal Party prepares to decide on March 18 how its new leader will be chosen, here's an idea for some would-be party leader languishing in obscurity and eager to be distinguished from the rest of the pack. Issue a call to call the whole thing off.

Can the party afford a traditional leadership fight? With a tight minority situation in Parliament, the opposition will have crucial choices to make every day for the next year. But even if the Liberal Party rushes the leadership "race," it will have no leader until November. Otherwise, maybe March 2007.

The Liberal plan will leave the party leaderless for up to a year, so that Liberals can fight each other. They will spend $50 million or more on that fight, while the party is broke and the election clock ticking.

Isn't this whole leadership race thing worth a second thought?

Okay, serious reflection is extremely unlikely. It's not just Liberals who act as if long and insanely expensive mass leadership contests were a constitutional requirement. We are all deeply in thrall to the fantasy that such a contest is inherently democratic and will launch a restorative clash of innovative policy ideas. Who could be against that?

But leadership campaigns are never about a clash of ideas. Leadership campaigns are about picking a winner, so the issue is always who looks like a leader. Controversial policy pronouncements can only alienate potential supporters, so policy discussion is always for the also-rans.

Leadership contests are not about democratic accountability, either. Modern leadership campaigns in Canada are about buying votes, and vote buying is not a democratic process. As former Chrétien aide Peter Donolo noted recently, "A traditional leadership process, with its bare-knuckle tactics, rules-gerrymandering, and virtual vote-buying will only further sully the Liberal brand and reopen dangerous divisions within the party."

Donolo imagines all that can be avoided if the candidates just promise to play nicely. But in every recent leadership campaign, the winning strategy has been to buy up party memberships, often by the tens of thousands. Whoever has the deepest pockets takes the lead. Once a lead is established, the fundraising of rival candidates dries up. Not only is there no clash of ideas, there is rarely a race, just a purchased coronation.

Is there an alternative to a traditional campaign based on the selling of tens of thousands of party memberships? Actually, the political parties of nearly every parliamentary democracy in the world already have a better way.

In the rest of the parliamentary world, MPs choose their leaders - and fire them too, when it comes time for that. A leadership change takes a few days. It costs nothing. Leaders are chosen by a group with expert knowledge of the candidates' skills and policy stances. Even better, the winner is going to be accountable to the elected representatives of the people.

In recent years, Canadians have undertaken a long and passionate discussion about our democratic deficit and how to fix it. We have debated senate reform, electoral reform, recall petitions, citizen initiatives, Citizens' Forums…. Everything, in fact, except how to make our legislatures actually work for the Canadians who elect them.

In the end, legislatures and those who sit in them are the heart and soul of parliamentary democracy. Nothing undermines parliamentary democracy more than leadership that is determined by extra-parliamentary vote-buying contests which produce leaders empowered to ignore the will of the elected MPs. Nothing could redress Canada's democratic deficit more swiftly than restoring the accountability of party leaders to MPs accountable to the voters of Canada.

The 102 Liberals now in the House of Commons earned their seats in legitimate elections open to all Canadian citizens, not by buying and selling "memberships" at ten dollars each. If the democratically-elected MPs are not fit to choose their own leaders, what are they doing in Parliament, and what is Parliament doing?

Canadians rage against the spineless toadying of backbench MPs, particularly those on the government side. We think it is a natural flaw of parliamentary democracy. But other parliamentary democracies don't have this problem. In functioning parliamentary democracies, a leader is just a special kind of caucus member, answerable to the caucus every day. In that situation, every MP is a potential giant-killer and potential kingmaker. Leaders work with the caucus and every MP in it -- because those who don't are likely to become ex-leaders. When MPs have that kind of clout and leaders have that kind of accountability, parliaments can actually play a role in the politics of the nation.

The press loves mass leadership campaigns, because the press loves horserace journalism. Special-interest lobbies love them because nowhere else can money buy power so efficiently. Candidates and party bosses love them. Despite the costs, the delays, and the damage they cause, the prize is just so sweet: absolute authority combined with zero accountability.

There is a choice here. We can have leaders chosen by an extra-parliamentary process and freed of accountability to the representatives the Canadian people have actually elected. Or we can have legislatures that work.

The leader Liberals should be looking for is one with the courage to say that a leadership campaign based on vote-buying is a disaster for parliamentary democracy. The MPs Canada needs are ones who will say the legitimate party leader is whoever the parliamentary party names as leader, not whoever expends the most effort buying memberships.

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd 2006

For more information on Christopher Moore please explore his web site