Across Canada, uneven efforts to combat the covid-19 pandemic while managing routine issues have laid bare a central flaw in the country’s democracy. A prime minister or premier with a majority government is near-unassailable between elections — more so than in other parliamentary democracies. A defect that can occasionally prove to be distressing has, during a global health crisis, become an utter catastrophe that has left an anxious, angry, frightened populace without recourse.
In Ontario, Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton should have resigned over her handling of her file, after coronavirus cases ravaged the province’s long-term care facilities. And yet, Ontario Premier Doug Ford — who ought to himself resign for his pandemic failures — stands behind her. The state’s Health Minister and Deputy Premier Christine Elliott has also failed. In Alberta, Justice Minister Kaycee Madu claimed “opponents” wanted the province’s pandemic efforts to fail. His attack was outlandish, irresponsible and unbecoming a minister, especially one in charge of the justice file. Initially, the minister refused to apologize, though later he did.
Federally, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has overseen one of the most bungled, incoherent attempts to pass a bill seeking to amend the Broadcasting Act. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has kept him in his post nonetheless. Indeed, as Andrew MacDougall, who was communications director to former prime minister Stephen Harper, put it, there are four federal ministers who ought to go, if only Trudeau were strong enough to jettison them.
So why are they able to continue? Elections are the central mechanism for accountability in Canada. But they tend to be few and far between, especially if a government wins a majority. The pandemic has made elections riskier, raising the threshold for what ought to bring one about, at least federally. Even during typical years, waiting on an election to deal with a failing leader can be a problem. Moreover, the concentration of power in a leader’s office gives them tools to control caucus, including the right to keep ministers in the face of poor performance if a leader happens to be so intransigent.
But there are accountability mechanisms that can be used between elections. The problem is we don’t use them enough.
The first is ministerial resignation, voluntary or forced. Ministerial responsibility dictates that ministers must answer to the legislature. Moreover, as is common across parliamentary systems, these ministers are expected to take individual responsibility for what happens in their departments. That’s the theory in all its vanity and hope. In practice, things are much different.
In a majority government backed by partisan legislative members who wish to please their leader in the hopes of gaining or keeping a plum cabinet spot or committee role, or to even be permitted to run again, the very members meant to ensure the smooth and competent operating of government often abdicate their duties. In a minority government, opposition parties who ought to prepare to bring down the government also often shirk their duties, given poor polling or organization, to avoid ending up in an election that won’t serve them well.
Ministers are one problem, but as the revolting old line goes, the fish rots from the head down. What happens when the leader is a disgrace with plummeting approval ratings, trailing destruction by way of policy and leadership failures? Pollster and founder of EKOS Research Frank Graves shared research collected between mid-April and early May that found 68 percent of Ontarians disapproved of the Ford government’s slow, inconsistent handling of the pandemic. In Alberta, 72 percent disapproved of Premier Jason Kenney’s provincial government.
In such dreadful cases as Ford and Kenney, their party caucus should revolt and remove them or force them out — a practice more commonly seen in the United Kingdom and Australia, which are parliamentary democracies with less centralized control. In Alberta, one member of the legislative assembly has called for Kenney to go. Another supported the call. Both were thrown out of caucus.
The Reform Act of 2014 sought to empower MPs federally, but fell short of its most ambitious goals. Parties should revisit it. But, more important, federal and provincial legislatures should drastically increase the number of members, so that the ratio of rewards to members shrinks. This is an old idea, but a good one. With more caucus members, leaders would have a tougher time incentivizing or threatening them to behave. Some observers would suggest adding recall by voters, too, though I do not. That process is more time-consuming, cumbersome and subject to toxic populism at large — not to mention it undercuts caucus control, the very point of having more empowered parliamentary members.
It is unreasonable to expect Canadians to watch politicians fail them as the pandemic devastates their lives and fells their loved ones, with no viable alternatives except to wait for the next election. Ministers who fail should quit or be removed. Going forward, federal and provincial governments in Canada should empower caucus to remove leaders who fail between elections. Not only might such a practice deliver better governance across a variety of files, it might even save lives.