Andrew Potter: The voters might still choose to put some pepper on Trudeau's plate

What was true after APEC in 1997 is true today: the only thing that will hold a PM to account is Canadians deciding they've had enough.

The late UBC law professor Wesley Pue once remarked that the entire Canadian constitution boiled down to the government saying, essentially, “trust us.” He was speaking in the wake of the release of the Hughes Report into the APEC affair.

A refresher: In 1997 it was Canada’s turn to host the annual APEC summit, a free trade and cooperation gabfest for countries in the Pacific Rim. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien decided to hold the meeting on the campus of UBC. Given that it is probably one of the most gorgeous pieces of real estate in the country, Chrétien probably thought he was being a good host. But some UBC students objected to the presence of Indonesian dictator Suharto at their school, and so they marched, held up signs, blocked campus roads and exits, chanted slogans, the usual student protest stuff. 

Chrétien was clearly embarrassed, and orders went out from the PMO to clear the roads. The Mounties started telling students their campus was now a “Charter-free zone,” arresting a bunch of them. In a notorious incident captured by CBC cameras, RCMP Staff Sgt. Hugh Stewart walked amongst the students hosing them down with pepper spray. (Asked about the incident at a press conference, Chrétien made a joke.)

The only proper investigation into the affair was led by commissioner Ted Hughes, who issued his report in the summer of 2001. Hughes found that the RCMP had behaved by turns incompetently and unprofessionally and that they had systematically violated the Charter rights of the students.  Further, Hughes found that they had done so under direction from the PMO — in particular at the behest of its director of operations, Jean Carle. While Chrétien himself escaped direct censure (Hughes could find no evidence that Carle had acted on Chrétien’s explicit orders), Pue pointed out that the fundamental principle of responsible government requires that the prime minister accept responsibility for what happened. Yet Chrétien did not. He neither accepted personal responsibility, nor did he throw Carle under the bus. Instead, what happened was typically Canadian: the matter simply went away. 

The APEC affair serves as a useful reminder of a fundamental truth about our system of government. As Pue noted, there are virtually no effective parliamentary or legal checks on a prime minister’s authority, and as a result it is pretty much impossible to hold our executive branch to account. We need to just trust them. 

It sounds grim, but there is an interesting coda to all of this. Not long after the APEC summit, Suharto rigged an election and got himself appointed to another five-year term in office. But Indonesia was wracked by growing political and economic problems, and university students took to the streets across the country to protest Suharto’s presidency. State security forces killed four demonstrators on a university campus, and the subsequent rioting saw over 1,000 people killed. Thousands of students occupied the parliament building, and a few days later Suharto reluctantly resigned. 

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Back in Canada, Chrétien hung on, even winning another majority government in 2000. He was eventually pushed out, not by the electorate but by his own finance minister who had spent years organizing what amounted to a bloodless constitutional coup. 

In an article he wrote for Policy Options in 2003, University of Toronto professor Joseph Heath celebrated Chrétien’s forced departure as “the triumph of Schumpeterian democracy.” As Heath noted, democratic reform-minded Canadians have an ongoing fascination with the promise of things like proportional representation, free votes in parliament or even the end of the party system entirely. But what our system offers instead is closer to what the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter described as a competition amongst elites for leadership. Our democratic system, such as it exists, amounts to little more than a handful of mechanisms for cycling out one set of elites and replacing them with another. Crudely, it lets you kick the bums out. 

It’s worth rehearsing all of this because we are going through a rather extended “just trust us” phase in Ottawa. After shuttering parliament last spring, ostensibly to focus their energies on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals spent the summer dreaming of “building back better” while fighting a ferocious rearguard action to keep MPs from finding out the truth about payments to Trudeau’s family by a charity. Trudeau has since spent the better part of the last six months governing by press conference from the front steps of his cottage, but even as the extreme levels of federal spending continue, and even as scandals and reports of gross mismanagement pile up, the Liberals have been brazenly testing the waters for a spring election. 

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Sometimes it seems like Justin Trudeau could fire his Indigenous Attorney General while standing in front of an empty vaccine refrigeration truck and he would still get 37 per cent of the vote. So maybe he’ll roll the dice and force an election this spring, or maybe he’ll wait till a respectable number of Canadians have been vaccinated before taking his case to the people. And maybe he’ll win another term in office, perhaps even matching his father by coming back from a second-term minority with a renewed majority mandate. 

But history also teaches us that the extreme trust-the-leader character of Canadian politics is a double-edged sword. Prime ministers are always the most important element in their party’s success, until they aren’t. They are its most valuable assets, until one day they wake up and suddenly they are its biggest liability. No Canadian prime minister governs forever; very few leave on terms of their own choosing. 


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