Gerry B's Book Reviews

Irresponsible Government: The Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada, by Brent Rathgeber

A must read for those who feel strongly that government should belong to the people.




Click on the above cover to purchase a copy. Also available in Kindle format.

Click on the above cover to purchase a copy. Also available in Kindle format.

Blurb: Irresponsible Government examines the current state of Canadian democracy in contrast to the founding principles of responsible government established by the Fathers of Confederation in 1867. The book examines the failure of modern elected representatives to perform their constitutionally mandated duty to hold the prime minister and his cabinet to account. It further examines the modern lack of separation between the executive and legislative branches of government and the disregard with which the executive views Parliament. The book seeks to shine light on the current power imbalances that have developed in Canadian government. Through an examination of the foundation principles of our parliamentary system and their subsequent erosion, Irresponsible Government seeks methods through which we can begin to recalibrate and correct these power imbalances and restore electoral accountability.



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Review by Gerry Burnie

The surprising thing about this book is that I was teaching this exact same thing 40 years ago, and so nothing much has improved. However, Brent Rathgeber’s perspective, as set out in Irresponsible Government: The Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada [Dundurn  Press, September 10, 2014] gives us a look at the dysfunction from the inside out – a view not many of us get.

The dysfunction in the Canadian democratic system begins at the most fundamental level of the process: The election.

An illustration of how the 'First Past the Post' electoral system negatively effects people's choices.

An illustration of how the ‘First Past the Post’ electoral system negatively effects people’s choices.

Suppose a constituency has a thousand voters and three candidates to choose from. Now suppose candidate ‘A’ receives 400 votes; candidate ‘B’ receives 350; and candidate ‘C’ receives 250. The way the system operates today, candidate ‘A’ will win with 400 votes, even though 600 voters voted otherwise.

Taking it a step further, once candidate ‘A’ gets to Ottawa or a legislative assembly, however, he or she quickly learns about ‘party-line voting.’ This is the rule whereby everybody votes the party-line whether they like it or not. Otherwise, they risk being ‘uninvited’ from caucus – the one place where they can freely express their views – and also stripped of their party benefits (i.e. office, expenses, campaign funds, etc.) to sit as an independent.

If, perchance, candidate ‘A’ is lucky enough to garner the leader’s favour, and is appointed to the Cabinet, he or she probably knows very little about the portfolio being assumed. Not to worry, however, because the unelected deputy minister does. Therefore, for the first while, and probably throughout ‘A’s’ tenure, the deputy will pull the strings in that ministry. The ultimate consequence of this is that there is a hidden level of ‘government’ that few people know anything about.

The cabinet is a fairly important position, inasmuch as he or she gets to shape policy; however, the extent of that policy depends on the minister’s allotted budget (‘envelope’), which, in turn, is determined by the prime minister (or premier) and his or her ‘inner circle.’ These are the half dozen or so of the PM’s personal favourites who surround him most of the time, and it is these who have the last word in shaping policy that will govern us. Input, therefore, has gone from 308 members (as it was intended) to a handful.

This is just a thumbnail of how the democratic process has been usurped by designing prime ministers, from Diefenbaker to Harper, but the dysfunction goes much deeper. To almost every nook and cranny on Parliament Hill, and this Rathgeber shine some light on in a non-academic way.

It is a must read for those who feel strongly that government should be ‘by and for the people,’ and that deviation from this has dangerous consequences. Five bees for the courage to stand up for the right, and for an interesting insight into the mis-workings of government. Bravo!


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Interested in Canadian history?

Want to know more? Then visit my new page:  In Praise of Canadian History.  It is a collection of people, facts and events in Canadian history, and includes a bibliography of interesting Canadian books as well. Latest post:  Wayne & Shuster : The comedy kings of Canada…

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October 20, 2014 - Posted by | Brent Rathgeber, Canadian author, Canadian content, Canadian government

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