Kevin Vickers, famous for killing the Parliament Hill shooter in October 2014, was Canada’s last Sargent-at-Arms. The Sargent-at-Arms serves as custodian of the Mace, the symbol of the authority of the House. The Mace is formidable, and was originally meant as a weapon. When considering electoral reform as a means of bestowing greater authority upon governmental mandates, it is well worth recollecting weight of the Mace. The formidable Mace, the symbol of parliamentary authority, reminds us that uneasy lies the head of the government (to paraphrase Henry IV) – which is responsible to the House – that claims the mandate. Canadians are a parliamentary people defined by their deliberations, conversations, debates, and contestation of elections. No single government mandate can speak for all of them, and most often not even a majority. As symbol of parliamentary, not government, authority, the Mace reminds Canadians of the benefits of parliamentary government and party government, including the benefit of regular and clear changes to government that our current electoral system provides.
In Discovering Confederation, Janet Ajzenstat explains the moral legitimacy government in Canada can claim for the “mandates”:
Parliamentary democracy, party government as it may be called, gives the right to govern – that is, the right to draw up and administer a legislative program to a party, a group of men and (today) women who by definition cannot claim sole right to represent the country’s identity, goals, character, and ambitions. At best they can claim to speak for the political opinion of the majority of the populace at the time they are elected. The consequence is that Canadians can criticize their governors and political governments without ceasing to be loyal to the Canadian regime (Ajzenstat’s emphasis).
Ajzenstat worries too many Canadians desire some institution with authority to speak for all Canadians and what they stand for. That was never in the plan. Instead, party government involves contestation of office among parties that “at best” can speak for a majority. The Fathers of Confederation expected that most of the time governments would not be able to speak even a majority.
The great virtue of parliamentary democracy, or party government, is that parties take turns running the country because none of them have authority to run it permanently. The idea of a “natural governing party” is a recipe for a one party authoritarian state. Governing parties, even those who win a majority, can claim only minimal mandate. Instead of electoral reform mechanism that aim at abstract correlations between number of seats and voter preference, perhaps greater effort should be made to moderate party claims for “mandate.”
Ajzenstat helps us understand why governments are prone to making exaggerated claims about “mandate.” Perhaps these exaggerations can be labeled, “democratic authority envy” because liberal democracy frustrates the ambitions of many by limiting, checking, and diffusing authority.
Ajzenstat taps into a long tradition of thinking about liberal democracy that holds that the best way to limit governmental power is to limit its scope and to diffuse its power. Power must be spread around to different institutions so that, in James Madison’s famous phrase, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” In the same place, he explains, in the form of a paradox, why this is necessary: “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” For these reasons, one of Madison’s colleagues at the U.S. Founding, James Wilson, claimed “to the Constitution of the United States the term sovereignty is totally unknown.” Sovereignty is the way of kings and despots, not of liberal democratic governments.
Political power and authority in liberal democracy is paradoxical. It must be strong enough to act and to protect liberty. But it cannot become too strong because otherwise it becomes what the notorious Robespierre called a despotisme de la liberté, whereby the power of promoting liberty becomes so powerful that it undermines liberty itself. For statesmen in liberal democracies, the great task is not to express ambition by expanding government, but to ensure government is sufficiently powerful to ensure the liberty of citizens, to “enhance choice,” as it has been recently stated. Statesmen need to walk a fine line to sustain this paradox. There is little grandeur in this approach, and because such their tasks are small compared to leaders of non-democratic states, they, like Justin Trudeau, may admire those “basic dictatorships” that wield greater authority. They suffer envy of another’s authority because liberal democracy bestows minimal authority upon them.
Power and authority are dispersed throughout different levels and parts of government: federal and provincial power, the different branches of government (e.g., House of Commons, Cabinet and administration, Crown, judiciary). The lines of demarcation between the branches are imprecise. We cannot expect their distribution to follow mathematical precision, anymore than we can expect the number of seats won by a government to reflect their vote count with too much precision. Each branch of government that shares power with each other part serves a purpose. For instance, to speak of the federal state as rational, and local attachments as emotional or irrational, as Pierre Trudeau seems to have understood the meaning of his motto (“reason over passion”), is to make a serious error.
With the exception of the Queen and Her Representative, the Governor-General, no single government official has authority to speak for Canada. The diffusion of power means that “Canada” is actually not a unitary entity (except in the person of the Queen), but an assemblage of parts engaged in argument, debate, and conversation. Canada is rarely fully present to itself, which is unsettling for a country so unsure if itself. But this uncertainty is the price we pay for the blessings of liberty. For instance, if your side lost the last election, just wait. You have the hope of winning the next one. The side that beat you possesses only minimal authority to speak for you.
Ajzenstat argues that Canadians over the past generation have become impatient with our forms of representation. They wish for someone to speak for all them, to embody Canadian “values.” They have become impatient with Parliament’s conversation and debate because it is “too partisan” even though that is the very purpose – and virtue – of Parliament. For this same reason Canadians have come to revere the Supreme Court because, like Plato’s Guardians, it seems to operate above partisanship and to embody wisdom.
Writing in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville argued that the great temptation of people living in liberal democracies is to reject separation of powers and the diffusion of powers. Former U.S. president Woodrow Wilson fell into this temptation when he stated the United States Constitution could be improved by bringing congressional authority under presidential authority. Today people similarly blame Washington gridlock on members of Congress, as if they were little children who need to do a better job listening to their father, President Obama.
The sense of equality among liberal democrats leads them to regard such institutional devices as irrational. Tocqueville writes: “They are repulsed by complicated systems, and they are pleased to imagine a great nation all of whose citizens resemble a single model and are directed by a single power. After the idea of a unique and central power, the one that presents itself most spontaneously to the minds of men in centuries of equality is the idea of a uniform legislation.”
The impatience Canadians express for partisanship, their repulsion against “complicated systems” including an electoral system based upon ridings, and their desire for some authority with the mandate to “speak for them,” reflects this desire to be “directed by a single power” that Tocqueville saw as a serious threat to liberal democracies. It reflects impatience with separation of powers, with parties, and ultimately with the forms of parliamentary democracy itself. It reflects the desire for a logical and mathematically precise ordering of institutions and their representative nature. Their “rationalism” makes them to overlook the benefits of the institutional and constitutional trade-offs that are intended to secure different benefits and different forms of representation.
If Canadians are tired of governments with “phony” majorities claiming mandates, then they need to remind themselves that parliamentary democracy or party government bestows only minimal authority and mandate upon governing parties. Greater effort needs to be directed toward understanding that than on electoral reform. Canadians need to remember the authority of the Mace, for it is ours.
John von Heyking is professor of political science at the University of Lethbridge.