The “Prime Minister is too (or not too) Powerful” Debate.

Again, from Peter Aucoin et al.’s award winning book, the authors summarize much of the conventional wisdom on Prime Ministerial power by arguing (pp. 112-113):

“the issue of concern addressed in this chapter is that power can be concentrated beyond what is required for responsible government to work effectively.  The important question then is whether Canada suffers from an unnecessary and excessive – and thus dangerous – level of prime ministerial power over the House.  Continue reading

This point is reached, we suggest, when a prime minister can abuse power with little or no fear of being effectively constrained by the House, including by the government’s own MPs in the party’s caucus or in the Cabinet.  Is there a democratic deficit at the heart of our system? In our opinion, there is.”

This view is countered by Dennis Baker, author of Not Quite Supreme: The Courts and Coordinate and Constitutional Interpretation (MQUP 2010), who argues that our political system does indeed have a separation of powers that provides sufficient checks on prime ministerial power.

At the core of both arguments is an emphasis on institutional/structural analysis.  Both sides point to particular structures that either give the prime minister significant power to do what he wishes, or that significantly constrain prime ministerial discretion.  These analyses are usually supported by carefully selected anecdotes or interviews with former civil servants and politicians that illustrate constrained or unconstrained prime ministerial power.  None of these analyses, however, as Graham White observes, provides any systematic empirical evidence that compelling proves one position over the other. Thus, the debate continues.

Clearly, we have reached the limits of what this type of analysis can tell us about prime ministerial power.  What’s needed now is a systematic study that empirically assesses prime ministerial power in practice.  Such a study might identify prime ministerial goals/priorities at the beginning of a freshly elected government, and, over the course of his mandate, track whether the Prime Minister is able to achieve those goals.  Doing so would require regularly-scheduled elite interviews throughout a government’s mandate with selected government caucus and cabinet members, and civil servants and political staff near “the centre” to identify instances where prime ministerial discretion was exercised and whether such discretion was successful.  They key is to move away from anecdotes and elite interviews that speak to particular episodes or general assessments and to move towards using regularly-scheduled elite interviews to track prime ministerial decisions across a four year period as they occur.

Are there problems with this approach? Yes.  But the current debate about prime ministerial power has reached an impasse.  It’s time for a systematic empirical study of prime ministerial power in Canada. (Anyone want to put in a SSHRC Insight grant?!)