When Stephen Harper declared the other day that "I make the rules," Michael Ignatieff jumped all over him. Calm down, dictator, he said in so many words. "Canadians make the rules." The Liberal Leader, coming off a successful summer bus tour, wants to paint the Prime Minister as a 21st-century rendition of Vlad the Impaler. For that, there's ample ammunition. But if he's to be credible, Mr. Ignatieff needs more than rhetoric. He needs a comprehensive Bring Back Democracy plan.
He needs it, and so do we. Someone's got to get serious about this country's drift from what was once a respectable democracy into today's sham version. Ever since Pierre Trudeau started overcentralizing the power structure four decades ago, we've been regressing into what former Quebec Superior Court justice John Gomery, who headed up the federal sponsorship inquiry, described as "one-man government."
Mr. Gomery's recommendations to fix the system were ignored by the Harper government. Its Accountability Act was designed to address the problem, but, as everyone knows, the mode of operation has been far afield of what that act intended.
The Liberals have been hesitant on the issue because of their own shabby track record - the sponsorship scandal and assorted other dalliances with corruption. They didn't even have a democratic reform platform in their 2006 or 2008 campaigns. But, being relatively new to the party, Mr. Ignatieff was not around for past transgressions. He needn't worry about being labelled a hypocrite, so he has a grand opportunity. We'll find out whether he's up to the challenge - or just another tinkerer.
A Bring Back Democracy platform should start with reducing the powers of the PM to something a tad less than Mussolini's. It should involve a restoration of checks and balances that give the word democracy some meaning. Some examples:
Implement the Gomery commission's recommendations designed to set limits on the PM's control of everyone in Ottawa from chimney sweep to deputy minister. In this vein, recreate an appointments commissioner - a promise dropped by the Harper government - that strips away the PM's patronage powers.
Reduce the size of both the Prime Minister's Office and the Privy Council Office.
Re-establish the integrity of the Access to Information process.
Dismantle the government-wide vetting system that sees much of Ottawa officialdom gagged unless given prior approval to speak by the PMO/PCO.
Restore some semblance of power to the cabinet. A prime ministerial pledge not to make pivotal decisions such as the ones on income trusts and Québécois nation status without prior consultation with that body would help.
Open the executive branch of government to media scrutiny. This could include daily press briefings at the Langevin Block, which houses the PMO and PCO but is currently off limits to reporters. It should include frequent open-ended press conferences by the PM.
Re-empower the increasingly cheapened committee system, starting with having the committees - not the PM - appoint their own chairs.
Reform Question Period so as to reduce the level of farce. Required is an end to the long run of Speakers who are not prepared to enforce the rules.
End the antiquated convention that shrouds the decisions taken by the Governor-General in total secrecy.
Such measures would help. But if we're really to commit to moving Canadian democracy into the 21st century, a much more basic reform is necessary. The heart of the problem is that the roles of the different branches of government are vaguely defined, leaving a power-hungry PM all kinds of latitude to run roughshod over the system. The roles, as Mr. Gomery has recommended, need be codified so that a meaningful system of checks and balances can result. A royal commission would be required to chart the course.
Any such grand reform would be predictably greeted by critics as being impossible, as requiring a revisiting of the Constitution and, therefore, as being a non-starter. These people are small thinkers. Crises such as the descent of our system into an elected dictatorship require something better: minds of magnitude.