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The Friendly Dictatorship

by Jeffrey Simpson
238 pages,
ISBN: 0771080786


Post Your Opinion
A One-Party Affair
by Mark Wegierski

In this book, Jeffrey Simpson treads cautiously over ground first broken by others. Stephen Harper and Tom Flanagan, for instance, wrote a cover article for The Next City (Winter 1996/97) titled "Our benign dictatorship: Can Canada avoid a second century of Liberal rule?" Before discussing the work as a whole, I'd like to touch on the book's various chapters.

In the first chapter, "Prime-Ministerial Government," Simpson examines the various formal and informal aspects of the system. For example, there are sections on "The Power of Appointments," the docile Senate, the Prime Minister's Office, "Backbenchers: The Prime Minister's Chorus," and "The Control of Information: The Prime Minister as Gatekeeper." This is all incisive public-policy analysis, delivered with flair, and revealing of the extent to which the Prime Minister dominates his cabinet and government.

In the second chapter, "Our Friendly Dictators," Simpson criticizes the inability of the NDP, as well as of the Canadian Alliance, and the federal Progressive Conservatives, to constitute a credible "government-in-waiting"¨mainly, he argues, because of their various "ideological" excesses. There is also an interesting and revealing sketch of Chretien, who is portrayed as "the ultimate pragmatist." Simpson writes: "In Opposition, he could criticize Canada-U.S. free trade as dangerous to Canadian sovereignty, then embrace it as prime minister. He could pooh-pooh the severity of the nation's deficit problem, as he did throughout his leadership campaigns, then act resolutely to eliminate the deficit in government. He could pose as 'Doctor No,' while presiding over large spending increases." The Prime Minister's successes, despite the obvious oscillation in his prescriptive behaviour, points to the weaknesses of the opposition as much as to the power derived from his position.

In the third chapter, "The Decline of Voting," Simpson advances various hypotheses to explain this phenomenon. His reasons are encapsulated in the following section titles: "Less Government, Less Interest?"; "Less Sovereignty, Less Interest"; "Interest Groups Rise: Parliamentary Politics Declines"; and "The Rise of the Courts." Simpson is quite sanguine about the huge influence which interest groups and the courts hold in Canada today. He attempts to downplay the political significance of these developments. Obviously, too much emphasis on the the power exercised by the courts and interest group would cause him to undercut the basic premise of his argument.

In the fourth chapter, "What Now?" Simpson discusses such ideas as proportional representation, and proposes a different (cumbersome-seeming) method of electing M.P.s based on listing preferences on the ballot (which he calls an "Alternative Vote"), as well as an elected Senate about half the size of the House of Commons (where Ontario and Quebec would have proportionately somewhat fewer seats than in the Lower Chamber). Simpson laments the concentration of power in "the imperial prime-ministership" but argues that such power is largely not exercised on behalf of any ideological principles. According to Simpson, the Liberals occupy a very comfortable "centre" position. Simpson castigates the NDP as extreme and irrelevant, while at the same time characterizing conservatism as merely an ideology of tax cuts and budget cuts. His view of social conservatives is derisory¨they are only an obstacle to the creation of a viable centre-right alternative in Canada¨and should, he seems to be saying, just keep quiet. According to Simpson, the Liberal party is not ideologically driven. Simpson states: "Procrustean politics do not work in Canada." In other words, strident ideology and ideologically derived policies do not appeal to Canadians. He does not see much real ideology in the policy directions taken by Pearson and Trudeau. It could be argued however, that Trudeau's agenda was very "Procrustean"¨he took Canada in whatever directions he wanted (bilingualism, multiculturalism, feminism, the Charter of Rights of Freedoms) without asking for a broad consensus. It could also be pointed out that Chretien has continued and built on Trudeau's agenda except where fiscal policy comes into play.

Simpson writes: "Liberals can be defeated only by coalitions whose ideological fevers are tempered by Canadians' overall preference for moderation and compromise." But as far as this reviewer is concerned, the Canadian Alliance is hardly an ideological fever swamp, though it is sometimes denounced and categorized as far-right. At the same time, it is difficult to call some aspects of current Canadian policy and administration, such as the most wide-open immigration and refugee policies in the world, or a governmental sector which consumes over half of the GDP¨while spending very little on the military¨as representing "moderation and compromise." Such policies represent a 'radical' departure from the way Canada was run before 1965.

Jeffrey Simpson gives only a partial explanation for the current-day crisis in Canada, an explanation which will probably satisfy most "small-l" liberals, and quite a few "big-l" Liberals, as well. Where Simpson fails is in his frequent inability to see the connection between the "big-l" Liberal electoral hegemony in Canada and the prevalence of Canada's left-liberal Tlites since the 1960s. Members of these Tlites, although obviously centred in the Liberal Party, also play significant roles in the other major parties, as well as in multifarious extra-parliamentary coalition groups. Simpson also vastly underestimates the NDP. It may not be an exaggeration to say that the NDP possesses an unusual degree of strength and depth not seen in any of the other parties, and so has had more real influence, without ever holding the federal government, than, for example, the federal Progressive Conservatives. Ideology (coupled with intellectual ability) may in some cases be a multiplier of one's political strength, rather than a burden.

Given the present-day context of Canada's ideological makeup, such fixes (the alternative vote and Senate reform) as Simpson proposes are unlikely to have much impact. One could easily claim that there has not been a working, substantively conservative majority government at the federal level since the early 1960s. Since the democracy reinforcing interchange of right-wing and left-liberal governments has not occurred, the country has been driven overwhelmingly in one direction. Here Simpson hits the nail on the head. This ideological hegemony could also be seen as an element of "the friendly dictatorship." ˛

Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher, published in The Report, Telos, and The World & I, among others.

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