Saturday, December 17, 2005

Mr. Schreyer, I don't think you're right

The former Governor General of Canada, Ed Schreyer, is returning to politics as a candidate for a Commons seat in Manitoba.
In his announcement, Mr Schreyer offered a fundamental reason for returning to the political fray...
"I believe for starters that we cannot really get at the main issues in a way that is meaningful until we manage to straighten out and clean up parliament and parliamentary control of cabinet, and through cabinet, control of a Prime Minister's Office, a PMO, that is getting out of control and almost presidential. That's step one," Schreyer said.
The last segment is where Mr Schreyer has made a serious mistake.
When it comes to relative power, the Prime Minister of Canada holds a lot more direct power than a U.S. president does.
For example, the Prime Minister has the power to appoint members of the Senate, which -- from this corner -- appears to be an adjunct body without a lot of real power. A U.S. president cannot. All that can be done from the Executive Branch side in the legislative process is in the hands of the vice-president, whose duties include presiding over the U.S. Senate and voting only in case of ties. That is the only time in which a member of the executive branch can directly participate in the legislative process. The prime minister, on the other hand, is a voting member of the legislative branch.
The prime minister also has the power to appoint members of the judicial branch without a confirmation process. There is no veto power over any selection a PM makes, unlike in the U.S., where the Senate holds veto power over major presidential appointments. (Witness the recent controversies over various George W. Bush nominees.)
The prime minister can also appoint his nominal superior in the Canadian structure, the governor general, as the current holder of the office has done.
The prime minister can call for the dissolution of the government at any time prior to the end of its scheduled term -- an important weapon in maintaining power. The U.S. president cannot. Unless removed from office via impeachment, no president, vice-president, or federal judge will have a term shortened involuntarily. Likewise, no elected member of the legislative branch can be removed from office prior to the expiration of his or her office unless expelled by his/her colleagues.
The prime minister may serve for any number of terms or years he or she desires. U.S. presidents are constitutionally term-limited to a maximum of 10 years in the office. A person elevated to the presidency via death or resignation after the midpoint of the unexpired term may seek two full terms in office. For example, Lyndon Johnson became president after more than half of John F. Kennedy's term had passed. Johnson was elected to a full term in 1964 and was eligible to seek re-election in 1968, but chose not to in the furor over Vietnam. On the other hand, Gerald Ford served out more than half of the term to which Richard Nixon was elected in 1972. Had Ford been elected on his own in 1976, he would not have been able to run in 1980. (The constitutional change came after Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to the office four times. There had been a tradition of only two terms begun by the first president, George Washington.)
And it's not clear to me that there is a clear, codified standard for the one area in which prime ministers are at a disadvantage in the possession and use of power -- the no-confidence vote. What I read in the spring seems to indicate that parliamentary traditions, handed down for centuries beginning with the English parliament, not the rule of law, dictate non-confidence. And there were some questions raised about a series of votes in the spring in which the Paul Martin Jr government held on despite defeats in the Commons. Powers of the president are much more clearly defined in the U.S. system.
So it seems to me that if anything, the office is becoming less presidential and more dictatorial.
I hope Mr Schreyer's comments were made out of insufficient knowledge and not just cheap America-bashing.
It would be sorely disappointing if it were the latter.