Toronto Newspaper Attacks the Undemocratic Centralization of Power in the Prime Minister and the Corrupt, Unelected Senate

Stop Harper!

I’d like to thank James Anderson and National News Watch for having published my column on putting the current parliamentary scandals into historical perspective.

“The Power of the Prime Minister”

In “The Power of the Prime Minister”, the editorial board of the Toronto News rails against the undemocratic centralization of power in the Prime Minister and the ineffectiveness of the appointed Senate  and calls for more “checks and balances” in our system of government.[1] The Toronto News first exposes the formal Crown-in-Parliament contained in the written constitution as farcical and compares it to the informal Crown-in-Parliament that exists in practice:

Canada is governed by two legislatures, one real, the other sham. The sham legislature is composed of the Governor General, the Senate, and the House of Commons. The real legislature consists of a despotic ruler – the Premier; an upper house – the Cabinet; and a lower house – the caucus of the Government members of parliament.[2]

The editorial board also asserts that the Canadian Prime Minister has emerged as dangerous, anti-democratic hybrid who wields the vast executive powers of the American President without sufficient legislative check on his powers like the British Prime Minister.

The Premier is almost the absolute ruler of the country. Our politics have developed in such a way that his office combines the peculiar advantages of the premiership as it exists in Great Britain with many powers of the American boss. […]

Controlling an enormous patronage, able to influence the fortunes of almost every legislator in his following, concentrating in his hands executive and legislative power, the Premier exercises a real authority which is greater than that of the President of the United States or any modern King. His supremacy, unlike that of the British Premier, is independent of his general policy and of his parliamentary performances.

The editors then compared the centralized executive and legislative power of the Canadian Prime Minister to that of a medieval monarch.

Our Premier is really a species of absolute monarch of the medieval type. He fights his way to the throne. He has to contend against one or more pretenders, the Leader of the Opposition being the more conspicuous of these. […] His reign often ends in catastrophe. He must succeed, and if successful, can do nearly everything he wishes […].

Finally, they suggest two possible solutions to this problem of centralization of power in the Prime Minister: the Governor General could exercise more discretionary authority against the Prime Minister, or the Senate of Canada could be reformed into a properly independent chamber that could check prime ministerial power, because the current corrupt, unelected Senate serves as little more than a house of patronage.

There is the influence, rather than the power, of the Governor-General. […] [The influence of the Governor General] is probably greater than the general public suspects and is almost wholly beneficial. It is almost our only check upon the supremacy of the Premier, and the Governor-General after all is interested in the whole body of the people, while the Premier is interested almost exclusively in his own party. 

At present, the Senate has sunk into an almost incredible lassitude. […] We are back to the need for checks and balances […]. Of course, the Government may be relied upon to oppose any such change. To put the Senate on a basis of real independence would assail [the Government] in two ways. [The Senate] would lesson [the Government’s] patronage and would curtail its authority. Only a real and sustained outburst of public feeling will effect such a measure.


You’ve probably never heard of the Toronto News, given that this newspaper went out of business some time ago. Robert Macgregor Dawson included this newspaper article in his compendium of Constitutional Issues in Canada, 1900-1931. The editorial board submitted all these common refrains – which we could hear almost verbatim today! – over 100 years ago, in 1905. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Today’s crop of reformers and Romantics make almost precisely the same criticisms against the Prime Minister. Nearly identical arguments appear in Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government and the recent special printed issue of iPolitics. For instance, both this editorial from 1905 and the modern Romantic literature exalt their ideal of parliamentarism, the Balanced Constitution and the era of the independent MPs, which existed from 1688 to 1832. (Of course, this Romantic exaltation omits any mention of the rotten boroughs and corruption that placed these independent MPs in the Commons). But Responsible Government necessitates party discipline. Worse still, today’s reformers and Romantics display the audacity and arrogance that can only result from a profound ignorance of history and thus consider their criticism and proposed solutions original, urgent, and essential.

Peter Russell, drawing heavily from Eugene Forsey, argues that the Governor should exercise a heightened discretionary authority to reject ministerial advice because “Prime Ministers must not become Kings.”[3] In reality, however, the Prime Minister became King in the 19th century as a natural and necessary corollary of Responsible Government. When “Ministers of the Crown take responsibility for all acts of the Crown,”[4] when the Prime Minister alone enjoys direct and privileged access to the Sovereign, and when the tenure of a Ministry depends directly and exclusively upon the Prime Minister’s official commission to govern[5], the Prime Minister does indeed become King, or what Benemy calls “the Elected Monarch.”[6] All these conditions had emerged by the mid-19th century, which explains why reformers and Romantics could criticizes the Canadian system of government with recognizable, contemporary refrains as early as 1905. As so often occurs in Canadian politics, everything old is new again. Today’s pundits and politicians who do well to look to history before portraying contemporary situations as unprecedented or unusual.

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[1] Robert Macgregor Dawson, ed. Constitutional Issues in Canada, 1900-1931. (London: Oxford University Press, 1933): 121-125. The Toronto News article, “The Power of the Prime Minister”, came from 28 November 1905.
[2] In fact, the Crown-in-Parliament consists of the Queen as represented by the Governor General, the Senate, and the House of Commons.
[3] Peter H. Russell, “Prorogation – Prime Ministers Must Not Become Kings,” Canada Watch (Spring 2011): 17.
[4] Sir John George Bourinot, Parliamentary Procedure and Practice, 4th ed. (Montreal: Dawson Brothers Publishing, 1916): 102.
[5] Canada. Privy Council Office, Manual of Official Procedure of the Government of Canada, Henry F. Davis and André Millar. (Ottawa, Government of Canada, 1968): 151 and 77-79.
[6] F.W.G. Benemy, The Elected Monarch: The Development of the Power of the Prime Minister. London: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., 1965.

About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
This entry was posted in Articles and Books, Crown (Powers and Office), Prime Minister's Powers, Reform, Reviews, Senate Reform and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Toronto Newspaper Attacks the Undemocratic Centralization of Power in the Prime Minister and the Corrupt, Unelected Senate

  1. Npinkpanther says:

    To be honest I take a “minimalist” view of responsible government in that I think the relationship between the executive and Parliament should be weighted more in favour of Parliament. I would not object if party discipline was applied only to money bills and no-confidence motions, and perhaps flagship pieces of legislation of the government.

    The Prime Minister must effectively be an “elected monarch” for responsible government to function, yes, but must he be an elected absolute monarch?


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