Jun. 22, 2020

There's political rot at the top of our government

Corruption, discrimination, elitism, favouritism and nepotism are an indelible part of Canada’s history and governance ever since the French laid claim to the territory in 1535. Originally treated as a trade monopoly, the first permanent settlement was established at Tadoussac in 1600.

The English had a presence in Newfoundland dating back to 1527 and a settlement there in 1610. The city of Halifax was founded in 1749. Following the English capture of Louisbourg in 1758 and Quebec City in 1759 at the end of the seven year English – French war, under terms of the Treaty of Paris, (1763) the French ceded her North American colonies to England and formation of Canada was underway.

Early governors of settlements were appointed by their home nations along with most of the civil servants who served them. They always had a military presence, and many military officers who had completed their service stayed in Canada rather than return home.

Many retiring soldiers received land grants in recognition of their service and became part of an elite comprised of senior civil servants, retired soldiers and wealthy merchants. The merchants had financed exploration voyages seeking trade opportunities. Henry Hudson’s expedition in 1610 led to formation of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670 and many trading posts in the north and west portions of the nation. The military still played a significant role in the British – US war of 1812-14.   

The major difference today is that although the military plays a smaller role, political and business elitism continues. Political parties need business to finance their efforts to gain power and business needs government to ensure it can operate profitably. That constitutes our upper class.

It is no accident that six major media owners are allowed to maintain a monopoly over cable TV, cell, internet, and print services. They can make or break a political party competing for governance. There are many examples of symbiotic relationships between business and government.

Our government took a sharp turn away from constitutional democracy during WWII. In 1940, Prime Minister Mackenzie King took control over the Privy Council as a wartime emergency measure. He combined the offices of Privy Council Clerk and Secretary to the Cabinet into one, supposedly to strengthen his cabinet during wartime operations.

The Privy Council Clerk had retired after long service and in February 1940 the Governor General suffered a stroke and subsequently passed away. PM King saw an opportunity to gain revenge for GG Byng’s refusal to call an election at King’s request in 1926. King made the move through an Order in Council PC 1940-1121.

Federal Orders in Council are issued by the Governor General on behalf of the Head of State on the advice of the Privy Council, but in March 1940, there was no governor General to issue the Order which makes legality of the Order suspect at best. This “wartime emergency measure” should have been withdrawn after peace was achieved in 1945, but PM King liked the broader power invested in the PMO.

Order in Council 1940-1121 profoundly changed how Canada is governed. For some further insights go to:  https://thediscoverblog.com/2018/02/16/the-beginning-of-the-conclusions-documenting-the-exercise-of-power/.

Prior to 1940, the cabinet met without an agenda and took no minutes of proceedings. The most senior government committee in Canada did not record its decisions! That is how our current excuse for a government is operating.

The office of the Privy Council, which by our constitution exists as a politically neutral advisory body to the Governor General was now politicized. This is significant as the Clerk of the Privy Council is also head of the civil service and should ensure that civil service appointments are politically neutral. All judicial appointments and senior civil service appointments are made by the Governor General on advice of the now politicized Privy Council.

Currently the active Privy Council consists of government ministers (the cabinet). That is ludicrous as the Privy Council has over 360 members who embody a huge amount of government experience and knowledge. The active Privy Council should be comprised of a mix of current and past ministers of the government to ensure balanced advice to the Governor General.

This is critically important if the nation faces a war or other crisis that puts our security at risk. We need to be able to collect the best minds to develop a response in a neutral setting and that is what the Privy Council is all about. Confidentiality of Privy Council deliberations are strictly confidential, meaning that the government ministers can brief opposition party leaders on security threats without concern over leaks that could start a public panic.

Our governments are abusing the Privy Council confidentiality provision as applying to cabinet materials and decisions. Cabinet confidentiality is less onerous than that of the Privy Council. If the government refuses to release cabinet materials or notes, the opposition parties can apply to a court for a ruling. A judge will then decide if release of the documents is in the public interest and if so can order a release of documents.

It is in the public interest to remove the Privy Council office from the Prime Minister’s Office and return it to being a politically neutral advisory body to the Governor General. There is no advantage to Canada in having the Privy Council office politicized and controlled by the Prime Minister. The cabinet secretary position should be separated from the Privy Council as the Clerk of the Privy Council cannot meet with cabinet and remain neutral.

For the same reason the Attorney General and Justice Minister positions have to be separated. The Attorney General, as head of the judicial branch, must be politically neutral and cannot meet with cabinet. Our system of governance requires political neutrality of some positions to prevent a huge imbalance of power in the PMO. The PMO should be looking to the cabinet and caucus for direction rather than hiring political strategists to develop government policy.
The PMO should not be able to appoint senior civil service people that are supporters of the Prime Minister’s policies. They should be hired based on competence and be required to remain politically neutral.

Political neutrality of our justice system and civil service are fundamental to a democracy. Without that neutrality we have an unaccountable Prime Minister with unlawfully acquired royal prerogative instead of a representative democracy.

The Privy Council and Governor General are important in our Westminster parliamentary system as they are a check to prevent unrestrained power of the Prime Minister and government. The dangers of this lack of power balance has never been more detrimental or obvious than at present. 

John Feldsted is a political commentator, living in Winnipeg