Is Canada a dictatorship – albeit a friendly dictatorship? In this thoughtful book, Jeffrey Simpson argues that the Liberal Party’s re-election to a third majority government must raise the question: Is Canada in danger of becoming a de facto one-party state, ruled by an all-powerful leader?
An effective parliamentary system presumes that at least one party is ready and capable of replacing the existing government by winning an election. Clearly, no party was ready in the last election, and none of the opposition parties absorbed the lessons of Canadian political history, that the Liberals can only be defeated by coalitions that show a preference for moderation and compromise.
The recent election results have left the Liberals in power for the foreseeable future. Jean Chrétien’s longevity and reluctance to step down has highlighted the most alarming part of Canada’s de facto one-party government: Canadian parliamentary democracy now places more power in the hands of the prime minister than does any other democracy. Chrétien, who has survived and thrived so long in this political system, is the last person from whom anyone should expect an interest in reform. At the same time, Canadians’ increasing discouragement over their political system can be seen in a declining voter turnout, a documented erosion in respect for all politicians, and in an increasing interest in other forms of political engagement as opposed to organized partisan politics.
The Friendly Dictatorship demonstrates what has been happening in three areas that are vital to Canadian democracy: the parliamentary system, the political parties, and the electorate. What has occurred within each of these spheres has directly influenced developments in the others, and the combined effect has been to leave Canadian democracy in a worrying state. The Friendly Dictatorship delivers a message that is informed, articulate, and passionate, and that should be heard by all Canadians.
Is Canada a great country? Well it certainly is a good one. After all, albinos aren't being stoned to death on Yonge Street and left handed people aren’t hiding out in barns trying to escape some wretched pogrom. To top it off, no deviant is leering into your bedroom keeping score on the margins of his dog eared copy of Leviticus. Frankly, it is a genuinely chill place to live.
Worry about institutional corrosion is neither new nor unique. But this book was written in 2001 and that itself makes for great reading from a historical point of view. Some fifteen years on, do Jeff Simpson’s arguments/concerns still hold?
Simply put, many of the outcomes predicted in this book have not come to pass. Paul Martin's tenure marked the implosion of the Liberal party. And they subsequently threw up the bench warmers of Canadian politics like Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff as leaders. Where else but the wilderness did they expect that to take them? Furthermore, it totally fails in seeing the Harper or NDP phenomenon. The right and the left have taken ground from the so called natural governing party of Canada. At first blush we might reject the central contentions of this book.
It is not to say, however, that reading this is a worthless exercise. Although the book did not see Stephen Harper the man, it did accurately predict how he would rule. Simpson was dead right in forecasting the accretion of ever more power in the PM's office. Look at all the cabinet departures over the last few months. Five guys have left government. Five. But it doesn't matter. None of them had free command over their files anyway; it was all being run out of 24 Sussex. "The last man to turn off the lights" is actually a Harper ad this cycle! Ministers and backbenches are relegated to the rank of braying idiots in the Commons. We are all Paul Calandra now. That certainly doesn’t bode well for any kind of country.
Too much a product of its time. Though this book did raise the concern about how a multi-party system can cope with one prevailing paradigm. Mr Simpson's idea that only a coalition could topple the Liberal tyranny was to prove wrong, as we switched to a Conservative tyranny for many years after, and are only now out of it. Will we see another long run and be doomed to just watching the two big parties alternate, like our Southern Cousins? Only time will tell.
At the time, it pretty much stated the obvious, though in Jeffrey Simpson's extremely readable style. What's more terrifying -- looking back on it -- is how unrecognizable THAT late 90s Canada is from today's Stephen Harper-led gulag of blandness and passive-aggressive psycho-control.