Canada’s political system better able to deal with death than delirium
November 13, 2013 2 Comments
On Sept. 25, 1968, Quebec premier Daniel Johnson, Sr. — not to be confused with his son Daniel, Jr., who himself was Premier of Quebec briefly in the ’90s — arrived in Manicouagan, Que. to participate in the opening of a new hydroelectric generating station the following day. Having just returned to full-time duties after suffering, for the second time in his life, a mild heart attack in July, after which he vowed to quit his three-pack-a-day smoking habit and to get more than his customary four hours of sleep per night, the premier boasted to reporters that he felt “dangerously well”.
After visiting a local tavern, talking to workers and downing a couple of beers, he went for dinner with Hydro-Quebec executives, and then returned to his hotel to go to bed, citing his doctor’s orders to get more sleep.
The next morning, an aide tried in vain to wake the premier. Premier Johnson had died in his sleep of a third, and this time massive, heart attack at age 53.
Though the premier had died, the machinery of government kept running as if nothing had happened. Jean-Jacques Bertrand, Quebec’s justice minister and deputy premier, acted as a stand-in until caucus officially elected him as party leader pending a convention, clearing the way for Bertrand to be formally sworn in as premier on Oct. 2, two days after Johnson’s funeral.
Since Johnson’s death 45 years ago, no provincial premier has died in office.
No federal prime minister has died in office since 1894, when Sir John Thompson died of a heart attack shortly after meeting Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle, near London.
If such a death were to happen today, the effect on government operations would be no more debilitating than the calling of an election — in fact, probably less so. The governing caucus would meet as soon as practical, elect an interim leader from among their own ranks, and send him or her over to the Governor-General or provincial Lieutenant-Governor to be sworn in.
At the civic level in Canada, the deputy mayor would take over as acting mayor until a by-election could be held, as Winnipeg’s then deputy mayor Bill Norrie did in the weeks following Mayor Robert Steen’s May 1979 death.
Thus, Canada’s governments are reasonably well protected against the death of the incumbent.
But what if the incumbent is alive and kicking — and seemingly completely bonkers, too wild, unpredictable or just plain out of it to hold high office?
That is where it is becoming increasingly clear that Canada’s political systems have a serious blind spot.
The warning signs were apparent as much as 50 years ago, when John Diefenbaker, just extracted from the prime minister’s chair in 1963 after six chaotic years in office and besieged by caucus rebellions, refused to accept the obvious: that his time at the party’s helm was up. Party members had elected him leader, gosh darn it, and he wasn’t about to be bossed around by uppity MPs.
Diefenbaker presided over another election loss in 1965. Even when the party members who had elected him leader in 1956 voted to force a leadership contest on the party in 1966-67, Diefenbaker was so divorced from reality as to ignore this clear vote of no confidence and to run again for the party leadership, at age 72, as the man to lead the Progressive Conservatives into the Seventies.
He finished in a humiliating fifth place on the first ballot, with just 12 percent support, dropping to a mere five percent by the time he quit the race after the third ballot.
Rob Ford, Toronto’s mercurial (to say the least) mayor, similarly seems unable to grasp reality today. A corporate CEO who behaved as wildly as Ford has as the public face of his organization would not be tolerated by the Board of Directors or the shareholders, and would be dismissed at the earliest opportunity.
Yet Ford can legally hang on to office until at least the next mayoral election even if he continues to drink, swear, hurl racist or homophobic insults, associate with a dodgy cast of characters and remain the butt of jokes for late night TV hosts.
While it might seem more democratic on the surface that the mayor is directly elected, direct election also makes Ford and other Canadian mayors effectively into elected monarchs, with little opportunity for removal from office between elections no matter how unacceptable the mayor’s behaviour becomes.
It might in fact be more democratic — from an accountability rather than a populist point of view — for Canadian cities to discard the direct election of mayors in favour of the parliamentary model of local government used by some Scandinavian cities.
In these cities, the council is directly elected by voters. But the mayor is not. Rather, city councilors elect a mayor from among their own ranks, who then must answer to council in order to remain in office, and can be readily removed from office and replaced if his or her behaviour becomes intolerable.
Such a proposal will not square well with North America’s populist traditions. But as we near the end of the Year of the Naughty Mayor, it is time to begin questioning those traditions and looking at how the hiring and firing of mayors could be done better.