Inbalance in Canada's Parliament 2002

Imbalance of Power Between the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and Canada’s Parliament

Morgan Duchesney: 2002


It is my contention that there exists in the Canadian Parliament an, “…undesirable imbalance between the power of parties [the governing Liberal Party in this case] and the power of individual MPs.” I will support this contention with references from our course reading package and C.E.S. Franks’ 1996 book, The Parliament of Canada.

The Current Situation: An Undesirable Imbalance of Power Between the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and Parliament

It is a common assumption among many Canadians that individual members of parliament (MPs) are quite powerless in the face of party discipline. According to Paul G. Thomas, this is a misconception because he claims that a great deal of dissent occurs behind closed doors at weekly caucus meetings. Thomas says that the government of the day can use this private debate and discussion to improve policy while simultaneously presenting a unified front to parliament. Local MP Marlene Catterall (Ottawa West) also told me this a few years ago when I challenged her to explain the value of party discipline. If Thomas, Catterall and others are correct, the problem with party discipline is merely one of public perception. Perhaps some changes ought to be made to increase public confidence. Perception often is reality, at least in politics.

The Role of the PMO in Parliamentary Dysfunction

Perhaps the greatest criticism leveled at the PMO as an institution is its growing power over elected MPs and even cabinet ministers. We can trace this development back to the regime of Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who decided that he needed to know as much about his cabinet minister’s issues as they did. He required them to submit to the PMO documents outlining their activities. Trudeau felt such a policy was necessary in the governance of a complex modern society. This policy required a considerable expansion of the PMO from a simple administrative office to one of enhanced political and policy power.

My first criticism of the PMO is that there is excessive centralization of power in the person of the prime minister who has control of tremendous appointive authority.
As well, there is increasing dependence among cabinet and individual MPs on the goodwill of senior PMO staff that have great influence over the all-powerful prime minister. This is an undemocratic development because it neuters the power of elected officials and shifts it to political appointees. The ability of MPs to express independent dissent is one of the hallmarks of parliamentary democracy in a constitutional monarchy. Party discipline discourages this independence. The Canadian Parliament has drifted away from its British roots in this respect.

Nature of the Imbalance

The pressure to present a united front in parliament gives too much power to the Prime Minister, the PMO and the cabinet. Party discipline is further enhanced by pressure from powerful individuals and lobby groups who have access to and influence on the Prime Minister, the PMO and cabinet. Ordinary citizens cannot hope to equal this type of privileged access. The government has recently moved, amid much resistance, to reform campaign financing. While it is ironic that Prime Minister Chretien, a habitual beneficiary of corporate campaign donations, would move to ‘reform’ the system; such a reform would be a good idea. Limiting corporate donations would reduce the inordinate influence of powerful individuals on the conduct of elected officials.

Party discipline creates a chill on dissent that gives a false impression of unity. While it is true that as David Docherty writes, “…it must be remembered that within each party MPs share similar ideological outlooks…” (1: Docherty, 2002, pp.193); ambition is a mitigating factor that might inhibit MPs from voting their conscious. On that subject Docherty writes, “As long as party leaders control internal party and house positions, ambitious members of parliament have a vested interest in not openly criticizing or distancing themselves from their leader.” (2: Ibid.) The current ‘carrot and stick’ system merely reinforces the existing dysfunction.

While party discipline may be an efficient way of conducting government business, it tends to rankle independent-minded MPs. The case of former Liberal John Nunziata comes to mind. He broke ranks and persevered as an independent MP. His success is a rare exception. Few voters wish to support a candidate without, “…a major party label.” (3: Ibid.) Since candidates are aware of this hesitation, independent candidates are a minority who rarely enter the electoral fray.

Another weakness of party discipline is its role in the patronage system. Each incoming government promises not to engage in the patronage excesses of its predecessors but invariably follows the same course. The danger to democracy and good governance in this system is the pressure placed on MPs to co-operate with party discipline in the hopes of receiving a patronage position or ‘plum’ either during or after their tenure. The Prime Minister, with his vast appointive powers, dominates the party. As C.E.S. Franks writes, “ A major instrument for accomplishing this domination is government patronage.” (4: Franks, 1996, pp. 38) I believe that such a system forces MPs to hide their doubts and frequently ignore their conscious, especially if they wish to be a ‘career’ politician. Amateur MPs would not as vulnerable to such manipulative pressure because they are less likely to be concerned about Prime Ministerial displeasure.

Possible Solutions

In his article, Reconciling Expectations and Realities in House of Commons Committees: The Case of the 1989 GST Enquiry, Jonathan Malloy writes, “ We know the methods by which party discipline is enforced, but scholars have found it difficult to trace why party solidarity is so highly-valued.” (5: Malloy, 2002, pp.318) Party discipline is a natural outgrowth of an adversarial system of government like our constitutional monarchy.

It must be noted that the most important players in our democracy are the voters. Recently, voter alienation has dramatically increased in Canada because people feel that their views are irrelevant to the actors in the political process. Out of this situation has arisen the populist phenomenon of the Reform party and later the Canadian Alliance. Ironically, both of these ‘grassroots’ parties have resorted to traditional party discipline as a survival mechanism. As Docherty writes, “…these [rookie Reform] members turned to their leader and his office for advice, helping to solidify a traditional party hierarchy in a party that eschewed these very lines of authority.” (6: Docherty, 2002, pp. 193) While this type of development does not destroy idealism, I can’t see how a rookie MP could avoid being somewhat disillusioned by such a course of action.

I tend to agree with Lisa Young who writes in her article, Value Clash: Parliament and Citizens After 150 Years of Responsible Government,
“… a dysjuncture exists [where]…voters cast a vote for an MP, not a party, yet parties form the only meaningful structures in Parliament…” (7: Young, 1998, pp. 132) Our Parliament was developed at a time that was much less egalitarian than the current era. Thus, it must change to reflect the times. Society in the Mid 19th Century was, “… relatively homogeneous and generally deferential…” (8: Ibid.) Since conditions have changed and Canadians are better educated, more informed and less malleable; reforms are necessary to reflect this new reality.

As Young writes, more free votes, relaxed party discipline and a progressive electoral system would contribute greatly to the betterment of our democracy. Of course, there will be strong resistance to such measures from those who fear the loss of their power and influence. However, the process must start somewhere and the sooner the better, if for no other reason that to restore voter confidence in parliament. If Canadian citizens could be made to believe that their views actually mattered, they would be more willing to engage in various participatory democracy activities. As it stands, active citizens are often marginalized and considered ‘radical.’ Even the word ‘activist’ and the term ‘special interest group’ have gradually gained a subtle negative connotation. Real reform may come from outside government with pressure from citizen coalitions and organizations like The Council of Canadians.


Docherty, D., 2002, Citizens and Legislators: “ Different Views on Representation” in Neil Nevitte, ed., Value Change and Governance in Canada. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Docherty, D., 1997, Mr. Smith Goes to Ottawa: Life in the House of Commons: Chapter Two, UBC Press, Vancouver.

Franks, C.E.S., 1996, The Parliament of Canada: Chapters One, Two, Three, Four, Eight, Ten, University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Malcolmson, P. and Myer, R., 1996, The Canadian Regime, Broadview Press, Peterborough.

Journal Articles

Kam, C., Winter 2001, “Do Ideological Differences Explain Parliamentary Behavior? Evidence From Great Britain and Canada” Journal of Legislative Studies. 7: 4.

Malloy, J., Fall 1996, “Reconciling Expectations and Realities in house of Commons Committees: The Case of the 1989 GST Inquiry” Canadian Public Administration.
Smith, J., Winter 1999.“Democracy and the House of Commons at the Millennium” Canadian public Administration. 42: 4.

Thomas, P.G., 1996. “ Parties In Parliament: The Role of Party Caucuses” in A. Brian Tanquay and Alain G. Gagnon, eds., Canadian Parties in Transition (2nd Edition) Nelson Canada, Toronto.

Young, Lisa, 1998, “Value Clash: Parliament and Citizens After 150 Years of Responsible Government” in F. Leslie Seidle and Louis Massicotte, eds., Taking Stock of 150 of Responsible Government in Canada. Canadian Study of Parliament Group, Ottawa.