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.

Photo credit.

The Problem with Trump-like Campaigns

I am loath to contribute to the pile-on commentary on the subject of Donald Trump, the US presidential campaign and the state of American politics. I am almost certain that most of you will inevitably read the title, file in under the trove of other similar headlines you have read already today on the same subject, and move on, but I also might have something here worth reading. The focus of this piece will not be Donald Trump himself— I think that the jury is out among most progressive peoples concerning the utterly regressive nature of the politics of Mr. Trump— rather I would like to focus on the nature of regressive campaigns, especially seemingly successful ones as we are currently seeing in the United States. Specifically, I want to talk about why regressive campaigns are a threat to the democratic process.

Donald Trump has put forward many classically regressive policies on his road to the US presidency. He has proposed closing the US border entirely to Muslims around the world. He has advocated the building of a wall to prevent the illegal immigration of Mexican and Latin American people into the US. He has called woman terrible names; projecting the stereotypical image of a man who simply hates women. The problem with what he says however, from the standpoint of democracy, is not the outcomes of what he is proposing, but rather the fact he is able to propose them at all. The problem with what he says is that his inherently regressive policies are nothing new to Western society. Every-single one of them has been dealt with adequately in history and has been disposed of as unsuccessful and regressive. The problem with a campaign the likes of Donald Trump is that it forces the entire electoral machine to react and address issues which have already been put to rest.

Liken the US presidential race to a meeting of a generic club or organization. A major decision is on the table, say the election of candidates to run for the head of said club or organization. A debate is happening over who would best fill the roles. Among the group there is a very loud and very annoying member. This member insists on bringing up decisions of the club which have already been made. We have all been in this sort of situation personally no doubt. The coworker who insists the agenda must move their way. An insistence that they are entitled to be heard and forceful intercessions on how things ought to be done. Eventually the meeting concludes and although decisions have been made, there is no fidelity toward an overall plan. This loud member insisting on rehashing old business has impacted the efficiency of the organization. Meet Donald Trump.

When the organization, or in this case, the entire electorate, are forced to revisit old debates that were settled decades ago, they are forced to devote time and political energy that could otherwise be spent on better things. We can take a case example from the debate on US immigration. There is most certainly a problem with illegal immigration in the US, and the support that Trump gets from Americans who are legitimately worried about illegal immigration should not be completely written off. However, that the country should ban an entire group of people or build a wall is a solution that is not even worth debating. And yet here we are. Rather than have an actual debate on the merits of real solutions (albeit not sexy soundbite-ish ones), the entire electorate is forced to listen, react and eventually suppress regressive, go-nowhere solutions. That is a problem.

The American people deserve the highest fidelity in all debates concerning issues which are impacting the most important country in the world. Given the power and influence of the US, we could say that the entire world deserves candidates in a US election that can present real solutions to these problems. The problem with regressive campaigns in the democratic process is that they force us to have to (re)debate half-baked, already-proven-broken and dangerous solutions when we ought to be debating better solutions.

Author’s Note: This editorial is the first of a new series on this blog. Opinion pieces will be posted periodically on broad political topics that impact Canada (not nessarily always Canadian, as this piece is proof). They will be relevant to current events and my hope is to fill the gaps between my regular parliamentary procedure and law longreads.