Dief was right about decline of Parliament, prof says

Kevin Hampson
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This is the last in a five-part series on John Diefenbaker's vision of Canada

We are living in “the twilight of liberty;” in the coming years our democratic institutions will become ineffectual as the state continues to centralize control over our lives.

Then-prime minister John Diefenbaker's rather bashful greeting to the Queen in October, 1957.

That was the warning that John Diefenbaker gave more than 40 years ago in a book called Those Things We Treasure: A Selection of Speeches on Freedom and in Defence of Our Parliamentary Heritage.

“In my view, the 1960s witnessed the decline of Parliament,” Diefenbaker wrote. “The 1970s will see it become totally ineffective unless the public takes notice of what is happening.”

Anyone who pays attention to Parliament today will know that Diefenbaker was right.

Just ask Donald J. Savoie, a University of Moncton political scientist who has for years been studying the draining of power out of Parliament and into the Prime Minister’s Office -- a process that started in the late ’60s and has progressed ever since.

“History has proven him right,” Savoie said. “He predicted the future. Diefenbaker sought to protect Parliament, and if people didn’t believe him then, they believe him now.”

Savoie only quibbles with the word “totally.”

“Parliament still approves laws,” Savoie said. “But it’s not central to the country’s governing process as it once was under Diefenbaker.”

“Of all the modern prime ministers, Diefenbaker stands out as the one who believed in Parliament and stood by it,” he added.

Pearson had “a certain respect for Parliament,” Savoie said. But Trudeau, and every prime minister since, has governed from the centre and viewed Parliament as an obstacle to be avoided.

See introduction to the series "John Diefenbaker's vision of Canada"

Read Part 1: History, tradition and the British connection

Read Part 2: Equality, populism & the Bill of Rights

Read Part 3: The dream of Confederation

Read Part 4: One Canada vs. the multicultural mosaic

When Diefenbaker was growing up in the early 1900s, every schoolboy learned that in 1689 the Parliament of England had wrested control of the public purse from the king.

From then on, the king would have to get the assent of the peoples’ representatives before he could collect taxes and spend public money.

That right was jealously guarded by Parliamentarians -- and by British subjects generally -- for almost three centuries.

Now, in the last years of his life, Diefenbaker was seeing the prime minister and his cabinet take away the ability of MPs to hold the government to account.

And, to make things worse, the mood of indifference and even contempt towards Parliament was growing not only among ministers, but also among the chattering classes and the public.

The example of contempt was set by then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau himself.

Diefenbaker quoted a statement Trudeau made, which is now considered emblematic of his attitude towards Parliament. In July 1969, Trudeau said:

“The Opposition seems to think it has nothing else to do but talk ... The best place to talk, if they want a forum, is of course Parliament. … When they are 50 yards from Parliament Hill they are no longer members -- they are just nobodies.”

“I can tell you with certainty,” Savoie said, “that John Diefenbaker would never have said that; John Diefenbaker would never have thought that. And it was offensive to him.”

As the title of Diefenbaker’s book suggests, much of it is devoted to explaining and defending the basic functions of Parliament.

“Autocracy, tyranny, dictatorship, are shadows that ever stand in the wings of even the freest of parliaments,” he wrote.

“Without an Opposition functioning as a recognized part of parliamentary proceedings, government would degenerate into arbitrary direction of public affairs by the executive and the bureaucracy -- minorities would stand unprotected -- freedom would wither -- individual liberty would be in jeopardy -- unwarranted and oppressive invasion of private rights would grow unchecked.”

What is being done by the Trudeau Government could be summed up in the words of Sukarno as ‘guided democracy,’ in which freedom of the individual is diminished and the power of the governing authority is multiplied. John Diefenbaker, "Those Things We Treasure"

And yet, Trudeau and his cabinet ministers were displaying open contempt for the Opposition, deliberately undermining Parliament’s public esteem.

It was becoming common, Diefenbaker noted, for ministers to simply read prepared speeches; to give misleading answers to questions in the House of Commons; and to make important policy statements outside the House of Commons.

“What a travesty!”

“(That behaviour) would have been so, so foreign to Diefenbaker and his views,” Savoie said. “He would never have done that and he would never have tolerated that from his ministers. And, frankly, he saw the world unfolding and it disturbed him.”

“Those were some of the first signs of Parliament losing its central place,” Savoie added.

Things have got much worse since then.

“It’s become part of the culture of Parliament to avoid blame,” Savoie said. “Question Period became answer period. Ministers give answers, but not necessarily to the questions that have been asked.

“But in Diefenbaker’s time, questions were asked and answers had to be provided.”

Trudeau govt introduced changes that "made the House of Commons a shadow," Dief said

Diefenbaker was particularly shocked by new rules that came into effect in the House of Commons in January of 1969. Voting on proposed legislation and expenditures would now largely be done in House of Commons committees, over which the prime minister and his ministers exercised much tighter control.

Another change the government made at that time was to move away from approving budgets on a vote basis and approving them on a program basis instead, Savoie said.

“It really handicapped Parliament from doing its job.”

Before 1969, “A department would go to Parliament and could have 15 votes; one on salaries, one on travel expenses, one on the expenses of a program (and so on).” That allowed MPs to scrutinize budgets thoroughly.

Now when a department goes to Parliament there are only two votes, one on overhead costs and one on all programs.

“So MPs have a heck of a time trying to figure out where the money is,” Savoie said.

The Trudeau government said the revisions were necessary because the complexity of modern government demanded a more efficient process.

Diefenbaker cited another reason: “It is commonplace for all governments to view effective opposition as obstruction.”

Savoie agreed.

“The older way not only took longer,” he said. “But it was very annoying to the government, because MPs could really get into the budget process (and) ask fundamental questions.”

Attack on monarchy was part of larger design to undermine Parliament, Dief believed

Another innovation the Trudeau government was undertaking was to downplay the Queen’s role, by such measures as removing references to the Queen and removing the symbols of the Crown from public life.

Diefenbaker saw this as being directly linked with the Trudeau government’s overall assault on Parliament.

Quoting political scientist Frank Mackinnon, Diefenbaker wrote that in Canada’s system of government, the monarchy serves democracy because it prevents the head of government -- the prime minister -- from identifying himself with the state; the Queen is the Head of State, and the prime minister is merely a public servant, criticizable, accountable and removable.

For Diefenbaker, then, it was not a mere coincidence that Trudeau was undermining the monarchy at the same time that he was increasing his own power.

Savoie doesn’t believe Trudeau had thought it through that far, but Diefenbaker was right to draw a connection, he said.

Parliament is composed of the Queen, the Senate and the House of Commons.

“You lose respect for part of it, you lose respect for the complexity of the institution,” Savoie said. “You can’t just pick and choose the parts of it that suit your purpose.”

In the late '60s and in the '70s, Diefenbaker was often portrayed by the media as a quixotic, out-of-touch backbencher with a grudge. But Savoie thinks he was misunderstood.

“I’m not sure if people in the 1960s took him as seriously as they should have, but students of Parliament, certainly now, can look back to Diefenbaker and say, ‘Hats off to you; you were right.’

“The last great warrior of Parliament was John Diefenbaker.”

Organizations: House of Commons, University of Moncton

Geographic location: Canada, England, Parliament Hill

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Recent comments

  • Chris Kramer
    September 01, 2013 - 09:49

    Just finished reading this series and enjoyed it. Diefenbaker seemed to be a visionary on what would happen when Liberals/Progressives run government - as seen on both sides of the border between our two great countries (hyphenated heritage, power in the hands of a few, unrealistic social agendas, etc).

  • don morris
    August 31, 2013 - 12:43

    Excellent series.Thank you. Ask most Canadians today about Dief,and the only answer they have is ,"the Arrow". What a shame that so many know so little about Canada's last great parliamentarian.