Above are the headers or banners of the official websites of each of the federal political parties in Canada. Both the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) and the New Democratic Party of Canada (NDP) have a picture of their party leaders right on the front page banner. The CPC, the Liberals, and the NDP all have a category menu for their leader immediately after the home page button. The Greens have such category fourth in their header menu. The Bloc have no primary category for their leader as information on Gilles Duceppe can be found only once scrolling down through the team category.
At this point you may be asking yourself, so what? Parties can organize their websites however they want and it’s helpful to be able to search out information about a party leader especially since they have important roles in the House of Commons and some might even one day be or are currently the prime minister.
A Centralized Prime Minister’s Office
The way the websites or leaders are portrayed are not problematic in themselves but are runoff from a bigger political and civic problem. That problem is that Canadians increasingly do not understand their own system of government or the roles specific political actors and parties play within it. The cult of leadership, which has been growing steadily stronger since Pierre Trudeau became prime minister, has warped how our system is intended to operate and the way in which political leaders operate in that system. For the past forty years, there has been a well-documented shift towards a more centralized power structure (within the Prime Minister’s Office or PMO) and away from the legislative body of government and the representatives elected to it.
The focus on leaders instead of political teams, of prime ministers instead of cabinets, and of the executive instead of the legislative actors in government has created several misconceptions in the political understanding of the Canadian electorate. Parties first created this misunderstanding by romanticizing their leaders in the public eye. Parties have become increasingly less about grassroots development and caucus wide decision making in favour of what was intitially cabinet contolled policy development and more recently, the PMO alone. As voters grew to identify parties more with their leaders than with their teams or even policies, political parties in Canada began to put their leaders in the spotlight even more.
It is hard to come up with a list of five to ten cabinet ministers in the governments of Chretien, Martin or Harper who will be remembered in history books not for scandal but for influence approaching the level of the prime ministers they served. Finance and other high profile ministers may be remembered as may ministers who later became (or will become) party leaders themselves. But those cabinets will pale in comparison to those that Pearson, St. Laurent, and King (amongst others) surrounded themselves with. It is unlikely that the current cabinet will produce names that echo in history like Clifford Sifton, C.D. Howe, or Paul Martin Sr. As for anyone beyond cabinet in caucus or even in opposition, it is unlikely any beyond party leaders will be heard from again.
Misconceptions about the power of the Prime Minister
The centralization of power to the PMO since the 1970s has created the following misconceptions:
- The Prime Minister is the Head of State for Canada
- The Prime Minister is directly elected by the populace
- The Prime Minister is the leader of the party with the most seats
- The Prime Minister makes all government decisions
- The Prime Minister can call an election
- The Prime Minister can only be removed by an election
- The Prime Minister is all-powerful
I added the last point for fun but the way things have progressed this might not be as far off the mark as one would hope. Clearly, the following is true instead:
- The Queen is the Head of State for Canada (her federal representative is the Governor General while at the provincial level it is the Lieutenant-Governor)
- Canadians vote for Members of Parliament at the riding level and then the Governor General selects the party which holds the confidence of the House, meaning it has enough MP support to pass legislation; it does not need to be the party with the most MPs and certainly not the party who the most individual Canadians voted for; the party the GG selects to govern only does so as long as it maintains the confidence of the House and this party general selects its party leader to lead the government ie. be prime minister
- The prime minister is the person selected to lead by the governing party which is in turn selected by the GG after obtaining the confidence of the House
- The prime minister directs policy decisions within his own governing cabinet (which he selects but is sworn in by the GG) and puts forward government bills to be debated by the House and eventually passed or voted down by the members of the House; opposition members may also table legislation though it cannot have monetary requirements attached to it
- The prime minister can request an election to be held but must ask the GG who can refuse the request and ask another political party or formal coalition of parties to form a new government so long as it has the confidence of the House; if no party has confidence the GG will call an election
- The prime minister can be removed from office by a vote of non-confidence in the House which results in the GG finding a new party to govern with confidence; the prime minister may remain in office if an election is instead called and may remain in office after the election should his/her party receive the confidence of the House once more after the election
- Clearly, the prime minister is not all powerful
The difference between what is popularly believed and what is actually the case in regards to prime ministerial powers is startling and worrisome. However, political parties have latched on to this idea and put their leaders front and center, offering promises to the Canadian electorate as if he/she himself/herself can adopt those measures unilaterally. They admit they will have some help from cabinet and will take some input from caucus but ultimately this strong, amazing leader will get your every desire done, mostly on their own with their super human skills.
This leads to two things: a disappointed electorate as leaders are not the super humans we want them to be, and ineffectual political representatives that are supposed to do the work of their constituencies but are either sidelined in opposition or the backbenches of government. With this cult of leadership power is increasingly concentrated in one office that houses a prime minister and his/her political staff and not where it is supposed to be, the legislature in the hands of your own representative. Party leaders themselves have frequently mirrored this power balance (or lack there of) in their own party structures to the point where even in political parties, members do not have much say. They and the electorate at large would not necessarily gain any more say if their chosen party is elected.
The role of political parties in the cult of leadership
So back to the image of the banners. All parties emphasize their team more or less but mostly the image of the party is centred on the leader. For the CPC and NDP, this means going as far as plastering their leader’s mug on the front page of the website in the banner. For all parties but the Bloc it means specific navigation on the front page that directs party members and would be voters directly to the party messiah.
Why is the Bloc’s website lacking in such overt cult leadership promotion? I would suggest that it is because that party is more about a movement than any specific members. There are not multiple visions for the BQ, it is only about separation from Canada. Anything else can be discussed at a later date. For the BQ, it makes sense to highlight the team instead of the leader because the party’s whole argument surrounds the idea that citizens of Quebec as a whole think they are getting a raw deal and wish to leave Canada as a unit. Parading around a single man does not convey this message as well as many party members would. This is why they list the entire team, including the leader, the shadow cabinet, and the party organization beyond the House of Commons.
The Green party, with its placement of the link to information about Elizabeth May fourth on the menu, is also a sort of movement party. While it has grown over the years into more than just an environmental party, that is still the main focus of the Greens. That party is less about a specific leader and instead about a general view of where should society should be going.
New Democratic Party
The NDP does not lack strong members but its leader frequently polls as a strong leader that Canadians trust and therefore the party has put him under the spotlight.
Both the Liberals and the Conservatives are the only parties with a history of governing at the federal level and have former leaders to invoke when discussing their plans for the country. With leader-related scandals in more recent governments of each party (Mulroney, Chretien), the current leadership is more interested in going forward than looking to recent history. For the Liberals this means introducing Michael Ignatieff to Canadians and making him the focal point of their party and what it has to offer.
While the current Conservative government has some able ministers, the focus is on Prime Minister Harper and government messaging is his almost solely. What disturbs me about the CPC website beyond the others is that under the leader heading it lists the prime minister but also his wife. I’m sure Laureen Harper is a fantastic human being but she was not elected by the public in any way nor even by the party apparatus. She is simply married to her husband, the prime minister. Her role in policy development and implementation is presumably as large as that of her children. Why this is disturbing is because it reflects an American viewpoint on the leadership of the country. On the CPC website, Laureen Harper, simply by being covered, is portrayed as a sort of Canadian first lady which makes the prime minister come across as some sort of Canadian president.
The President of Canada
And that is ultimately what this cult of leadership is getting to. The idea that the Canadian political leader is not just leader of the party or government but of the state itself, pushing out the Governor General and the checks on the system that have existed for nearly 150 years. The leader is becoming all there is and as Canadians do not elect this leader but do elect their representatives that are frequently sidelined, this is a problem. The prime minister, and not just the current one, increasingly takes more and more power away from the people and their representatives, concentrating it instead in his own office with only himself and his staff to consider what is important to Canadians.
We should demand strong leadership with clear vision and a road map to achieving that vision. But we should also demand that leadership mean something more than the individual. That it not be one voice silencing all others but the answering of what all the voices of the nation collectively call for.