One of the costs of long-tenured prime ministers is that over time there accumulates a sense of hubris and a complacency that serves the pride and ego of the leader and his cadre, but few others. This mentality is captured well by Louis St. Laurentâ€™s 1949 campaign slogan: â€œYouâ€™ve never had it so good.â€ While, at the time, St. Laurent had only been in power for a short time, his party had been in power for 13 years in a row.
Another example is Mulroneyâ€™s two kicks at the constitutional can. While the 1987 Meech Lake Accord showed fresh, albeit elitist, thinking on the constitution, the 1992 Charlottetown Accord seemed more like an act of great hubris and (and, incidentally, political suicide).
Perhaps my favourite instance of hubris and entitlement, though, is ChrÃ©tienâ€™s decision to stay through the 2000 election cycle. It was rumoured that he made this decision, in part, to spite Paul Martin, heir apparent and rival in the style of an epic melodrama reminiscent of Isaac and Ishmael. The long-suffering country returned a Liberal majority, steeped in corruption and in-fighting, and was rewarded with front-row seats to see ChrÃ©tien and Martin run the Grits into the ground.
On top of hubris, entrenched prime ministerial tenures also erode the capacity of opposition parties to do their job. As Franks argued, weakened oppositions, who cannot rely on patronage, who do not enjoy the extensive resources enjoyed by the governing parties, and who must constantly deal with rookie MPs are less able to effectively hold the government to account.
Harper, prime minister since 2006, is deeply into the stage of leadership at which his elapsed time in office has become a problem. The extent of his hubris is well-known. Indeed, it has gone so far as to rouse former House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken, who told author Michael Harris, â€œParliament can hardly be weakened any more than it already is. Harper canâ€™t go much further without making the institution dysfunctional. He is trying to control every aspect of House business. In fact, it will have to be returned to its former state by someone if we are to have a democracy.â€
Today, with a diminished journalistic workforce on Parliament Hill, handling multiple deadlines and shrinking news space, it’s harder to keep any story in the frame of attention, let alone a dry, complicated fiscal debate. Note the revolving controversies of the past few years. Remember the Afghan-documents issue? Prorogation? We’re also told that the public has no interest now in "process" stories — which pretty much describes most political stories. I’m old enough to remember a time when I covered a story for months at a time — years, in the case of the national-unity struggles of Meech and Charlottetown. Now that prospect seems almost ridiculous.
The panel didnâ€™t think very much of it but think they missed the point. They said that the financial crisis isnâ€™t bad enough in peopleâ€™s minds to require this kind of arrangement again. In some ways they are correct as Canada has a very strong economy compared to the rest of the western world right now. At the same time they missed the point in that with cuts to Parliament Hill, they arenâ€™t sure what we stories they are missing. Of course I didnâ€™t expect Chantel Hebert or Andrew Coyne to admit that because of cuts in the media and a quicker, more intense news cycle that her and her colleagues are missing important stories but the truth is, they donâ€™t really know what they are missing.