Are Prime Ministers Corrupt?


By: Geoff Vendeville

National editor of Maclean's Andrew Coyne holds his ground in the ROM's PM power debate

National editor of Maclean’s Andrew Coyne holds his ground in the ROM’s PM power debate

Few Canadian prime ministers were spared in the latest History War held at the Royal Ontario Museum. Andrew Coyne, the national editor of Maclean’s, argued for the motion, “Power corrupts Canadian prime ministers,” taking aim at almost every Canadian PM since Macdonald. The Rt. Hon. Sheila Copps, a Liberal MP from 1984 to 2004 and deputy prime minister under Jean Chrétien, was tasked with defending the integrity of the Canadian head of government. Canadian historian Jack Granatstein moderated the debate.

Coyne had no difficulty finding examples of corruption in Canada’s highest office, from John A. Macdonald, who notoriously solicited funds from a wealthy industrialist to bribe voters before the 1872 election (and later awarded him the contract to build the Canadian Pacific Railway), to Brian Mulroney, who appointed his wife’s hairdresser to the Federal Business Development Bank. The appetite for power grows with the eating, Coyne argued. The PM’s office attracts bright and ambitious people, who are naturally inclined to abuse their power as much and as often as they can. “Power without abuse loses its charm,” Coyne said quoting the French poet, Paul Valéry.

To make matters worse, the prime minister’s power is already very extensive, Coyne claimed. The PM sets election dates, decides when Parliament meets and adjourns, and sets the Cabinet’s agenda. He also appoints important officials, including Supreme Court justices, ambassadors, senators, and executives of Crown Corporations (which have become “patronage sinkholes,” according to Coyne).

Traditional checks on the prime minister’s power have waned in significance, he argued. The Cabinet has become little more than a “focus group” for the PM. Parliament, especially in the event of a majority government, is just a rubber stamp. And Question Period? “Don’t make me laugh.”

Sheila Copps, known as a member of the “Rat Pack,” the effective Liberal parliamentary opposition to Mulroney, came to the defense of Canadian prime ministers. Politicians don’t deserve their bad rap, she said. “Are prime ministers more corruptible than their counterparts in other means of endeavour? Do the CEOs of Enron cast a pall over all other corporate executives?” One bad prime minister, or even many, doesn’t spoil the bunch.

The “cynical reporting” of 24/7 news networks is largely responsible for the public’s unfounded distrust of politicians, Copps added. Balanced reporting, “perhaps even in Maclean’s,” she said in a swipe at Coyne, would help politicians’ image. Public service, said Copps speaking from experience, “is the highest form of sacrifice for the community… The PM’s message is not one of corruption but of redemption. Vive le Canada!”

“I fear that my distinguished opponent may have wandered into the wrong debate,” Coyne countered. He agreed that politicians aren’t inherently bad people. “Politicians are no more corrupt and no more corruptible than anyone else,” he said. “The problem is that politicians get way too into the game and forget about the rules.”

After each speaker had made their opening statement and had a chance for rebuttal, they took turns answering questions from the audience. One person asked if it was better to give extensive powers to the executive branch rather than suffer political gridlock as in the United States. “It is possible to have too much of a good thing,” Coyne responded. “The US system is overly burdened and complex… [but] Canada is at the opposite extreme.”

At the end of the debate, moderator Jack Granatstein took a straw poll of the audience on the motion that power corrupts Canadian prime ministers. A clear majority agreed. Speaking to the newspaper, Granatstein said he found it interesting that most people in the audience were skeptical of prime ministerial power. “If I was a politician, that would worry me. Happily, I’m not a politician.”

So is there any hope for Canadian democracy? The system needs electoral reform, said Coyne – and soon. “The fact that we still have appointed senators is outrageous,” he said. However, he added that “a little creative chaos” will be necessary to bring about reform.

The next debate, “Tommy Douglas Put Healthcare on the Wrong Path,” will be held January 25. See the full History Wars program on the Royal Ontario Museum website:

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