Leadership Term Limits in Canada

An interesting question was raised by Samara Canada this morning over twitter:

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…without question something worth taking a look at, especially in light of recent rumours that Conservatives are looking to impose term limits on their leaders. Stephen Harper served as Prime Minister of Canada for nearly nine years after winning three elections as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. However, he is not the longest serving prime minister in Canadian history, that honour rests with William Lyon Mackenzie King who served just over 21 years after winning six elections as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. Four prime ministers in Canadian history have served mandates that were not consecutive, meaning they stayed on as leader of their party (or in one case, briefly retired) regardless of a general election loss from an incumbency position. Over half of Canadian prime ministers have served over 5 years in office and of those eleven, only one managed in with only a single mandate (the average number of mandate for that top half was two).

This picture of our head of government in Canada is in stark contrast to the United States which, through constitutional amendment, have limited the terms of their Presidents to two four year terms. The exception would be in time of great needs, for example a time of war, which has only occurred once in the history of that country. The argument articulated in the United States justifying term limits rests on an overall check and balance that limits the control of a powerful personality occupying the White House.

But there are also arguments against terms limits which are entirely valid. For example, it is argued that an eight year cycle of leadership results in short-sighted executive government. There is also an argument to be made about an executive formulated on a mandated short term against a legislature that can have members re-elected for an indefinite period of time, and the power imbalance which is created in such a situation.

We can debate the merits of term limits back and forth, but the fact remains that in Canada the office of the Prime Minister is not an official office within the structure of our executive and legislature. In fact, the title of Prime Minister is not used once in any constitutional document in Canada (same for in the United Kingdom). This is significant and there are important reasons why this apparent oversight is in fact intentional. Primarily, the prime minister of Canada is first and foremost a member of the legislature. This is a fundamental tenant of responsible government in Canada; the practice of executive members of the government being drawn from elected members of Parliament. This is in contrast to the government system in the United States where the head of state is separate from the legislature, not infused as in our British parliamentary model. In the US system, the President is directly accountable to the people, in Canada the prime minister is directly accountable to the House of Commons which is composed of members who are directly accountable to the people (which include the sitting PM directly as a member).

In the United States, the president is chosen in an election which is separate from that of the legislature. Each of the two major political parties have established primary systems designed to determine their respective candidate for the presidential election. It is all done separate from the mechanisms that support the election of the legislature. In Canada, the prime minister is chosen based on which party is able to establish and maintain the confidence of the House of Commons. Canadians play no role in choosing the prime minister aside from electing their respective member of Parliament. Our accountability of this system is based on the fact that the person chosen by our head of state (the Queen delegated to the Governor-General) will only come from the elected batch of members in the House of Commons. And the mechanisms of who goes forward from that batch is entirely based on partisan politics. We do not chose, as Canadians, who leads the various parties and thus has a chance of becoming Prime Minister. As members of the respective parties we may have a say, and the mechanism of that voice is determine through internal party constitutions and by-laws. A party could very well select a leader among only elected members of their own caucus (as was done in the United Kingdom for centuries).

In our current political system in Canada, it would be impossible and irresponsible to impose term limits on the prime minister. It would be terribly undemocratic to impose restrictions on who a group of Canadians formed as a political party can elected as their leader and for how long. Political parties themselves are free to impose limits on their leaders, and indeed can indirectly impose limits on the prime minister by having these limits internally. But there simply would be no statutory avenue for the legislature to establish law that would impose a limit on the prime minister without their being a limit within their own party.

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Brexit, Canada and Federalism

The Globe and Mail recently published an editorial by former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson on the topic of the European Union which called on Canada, as the great success-story of federalism, to stand up for Europe. Undoubtably, Robertson is referring directly to the recently ramped-up Vote Leave campaign in the United Kingdom, which seeks a withdrawal of that country from the European Union in general. I have personally been following the Brexit campaign half out of a desire for a good political story (look no further than Europe for great politics) and half because the outcome represents one front (of four) in which the European Union is facing a modern identity, and consequently, existential crisis. And, I can say, with confidence, that I disagree whole heartedly with the sentiment presented by Colin Robertson in his recent editorial. My disagreement is based on one chief complaint; the European Union is not a federalist experiment in Europe. And furthermore, a suggestion that it is as such is a prime reason why the United Kingdom, or any self-respecting democracy for that matter, should not advance membership in the European Union.

Robertson reaches back to the days of Trudeau to paint a very rosy picture of federalism. He is indeed correct when he reminds us of the strength Trudeau placed on federalism by claiming that it was a representation of great compromise between mature political actors. There is no question that within pluralistic states, federalism is a democratic option that presents the strongest case for stability and growth. There are not many politically minded people who would deny that fact. However, the crux lay in the fact that federalism requires an overarching state which can be composed of one or more nations. A state which would require the social contact between the people to exist in the first place. The European Union is not a state in this sense, and never was meant to be as such. I would concede that there are powerful European political forces who would like to see the European Union become a federalist super-state above the nation-states of Europe formerly known as countries. But the fact is that the European Union is first and last an economic union. It was conceived as such, it developed initial regulation as such and since has spawned into something that I absolutely do not slight Robertson for observing as being a federalist state from across the pond but at the end of the day is merely an economic union.

The chief organ of the European Union is the European Council which is composed of members who are at best unelected and at worst have been previously rejected in elections within their own countries. That is a fundamental democratic flaw within the European Union construct that would certainly prevent the country which founded the common law concept of responsible self-government from subscribing. There is absolutely no reason why the United Kingdom would require an unelected and foreign executive and legislative branch above the duly elected government and House of Commons to pass laws for their people. Any country that would allow the apparatus of the state and law to fall into the hands of a small and distant unelected body would be in breach of the social contract established between the people and the state. Federalism requires first and foremost the presence of democratically elected representatives and responsible government. Both of which are not present within the European Union.

The campaign currently underway within the United Kingdom is indeed historical. Not just because of the ramifications that will fall out in the future regardless of the outcome, but even in the very nature of the referendum itself. Robertson is correct in saying that here in Canada we have a unique connection to Europe and the United Kingdom and thus can draw a reason to enter into the fray. It was the United Kingdom that established British North America which eventually became Canada. But there is a lesson there as well, because the relationship that the United Kingdom has today with the European Union can be compared to that of a young Canada and a dying Empire. Rightfully, Canadians sought to shake off the powers and influence of a foreign and unelected power and we eventually grew and developed our own statehood. The United Kingdom has never lost statehood, but the waters have certainly become muddled as a member of the European Union. Just as it was abhorrent for Canadians to be under the direct control of European powers, the people of the United Kingdom have determined that it may be just as abhorrent to be under the direct control of European powers. We do have a common thread here, and we should be rallying behind our democratic big brothers and sisters.

Federalism lastly is about bringing the execution of government closer to the people. The devolution of powers from a federalist state down to the various states and municipalities stands as a system designed to address a fundamental principle of good government, namely that it is administered as closely to the people as possible. The European Union as a concept is the exact opposition of federalism. It seeks to remove the unique nature of each state within Europe and to blend a common economic body of regulations, monetary policy and, more recently, a common body of law. This removes fundamental executive powers of the government and state from the people and brings it closer to Brussels and not the British Isles.

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