Canadian politics

he program was organized by Chris Sands, Johns Hopkins, and featured University of Calgary Professor Ian Brodie, former Chief of Staff to Canadian PM Stephen Harper talking about post-election politics in Ottawa.  The event seemed mostly for Hopkins’ students, who made up almost all the crowd of about thirty and were so much engaged that the program stretched two hours.  I met my old colleague Jim Dickmeyer, Acting Director, The Canada Institute.  Jim came into the Foreign Service a few months before I did.  We got to know each other when we worked in Brazil.

The focus of the program was Professor Brodie’s book “At the Centre of Government: The Prime Minister and the Limits of Political Power.”  He brought a copy of the book, but unlike many such book events, no books were on sale.  Brodie said that he wrote the book mostly for Canadians to understand their own government but was familiar with the U.S. system and would make comparisons to help us Americans understand.

Most Americans and most Canadians are aware of differences but rarely think about them, assuming presidents and prime ministers have different titles but similar prerogatives.  They do not.

Canada does not have the same system of checks and balances that we have.  In the USA the independent Congress checks the president.  In Canada, the parliament checks the prime minister only by changing power.   Canada expects that governments will change and that disciplines the PMs. Otherwise, they can do much more of what they want than a U.S. president.  This gives more power to career government officials.  Canada is not run as in the famous BBC series “Yes Minister,” he said, but there is some truth in that show for Canada as well as the UK.

There is some talk among political scientists that the provinces are the check on the PM.  There are only ten Canadian provinces, which gives each premier relatively greater weight than the governor of one of the 50 states.  There are some particulars among the provinces.  Alberta has most of the energy and Quebec in unique in many ways, but the provinces rarely get together to check the PM.

Brodie said that most federal governments wisely leave most local issues to the provinces.  The Trudeau government, in Brodie’s opinion, has interfered more and that is causing some tension.

In response to questions, Brodie got into some specific programs.

Canada has been trying to expand the pipeline from the oil and gas fields of Alberta to the Pacific, the Trans Mountain Pipeline. The federal government acquired the pipeline with the intent of modernizing and expanding it.  This has become necessary because of a big drop in American demand, after the development of fracking made so much American oil and gas available.   The oil producers are having trouble selling all their oil and cannot sell much natural gas at all.  The pipeline would connect to international markets.  Likely much of it would still go to the USA, but via the Pacific.

Brodie says that the federal government has run into all sorts of obstacles in getting the pipeline up and running.  This, Brodie says, is a problem much more serious than the already serious problem of shipping hydrocarbons.  It has become a test for federal effectiveness.  If they cannot get this done, it will seriously detract from the government’s reputation for getting things done.  This will affect investment not only in energy, but also in other potentially controversial activities such as mining.  They are also missing opportunities to leverage pipeline construction with other issues, such as the Columbia River Treaty, also a big producer of energy.

Answering a follow up question, Brodie said that Alberta oil producers have learned to produce oil with much less a carbon footprint.  They did this mostly to save money.  Energy is a cost after all, but it has ecological benefits.

Speaking of political issues, Brodie said that Canada has some of the same issues as the USA with social media.  Canada once had a controlled and calm media.  Not anymore.  Brodie worries that the battle of ideas had degraded into a battle of online mobilization.  This is chaotic and beyond the control of the parties.  When asked about political action committees (PACs), Brodie said that they have less power than those in the USA because they are prohibited from spending large sums during elections, elections are call, not scheduled, and the election periods are short.  PACs tend to be used for intra-party discipline rather than to influence elections directly.

Questions and answers also included details about personalities I did not know about. Unfortunately, I do not have sufficient background to put them in context.

Canada’s New Government: The Limits of Power

by The Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University SAIS

Event Information

University of Calgary Professor Ian Brodie, former Chief of Staff to Canadian PM Stephen Harper on post-election politics in Ottawa

About this Event

The Center for Canadian Studies is pleased to welcome distinguished University of Calgary Professor Ian Brodie to discuss the lessons and insights from his new book, At the Centre of Government: The Prime Minister and the Limits of Political Power (McGill Queen’s University Press, 2019). Dr. Brodie served as Chief of Staff to former Prime Minister Stephen Harper during the Conservative minority government from 2006 to 2008, and will discuss the outlook for the newly elected Canadian government. Senior Research Professor Christopher Sands, Director of the Center for Canadian Studies will serve as moderator.

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