News broke last week that for the first time in Canadian history, the Privy Council Office issued a contract for a running poll that will test the temperature of the Canadian electorate on issues every week, beginning next month, following the release of the federal budget. This is a troubling development.
This isn’t a government department checking the pulse of the nation in regards to its particular bailiwick. This is the agency that advises the prime minister himself and the data that is collected from these running polls will be de facto available to the political officers of “the centre.” The Centre, for the benefit of those outside the perception distortion field known as the Ottawa bubble, is the political heart of the Liberal Party of Canada—at least when it holds the levers of power in its hands.
There has been a long running tendency towards centralization in Canadian politics. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper was infamously known as a control freak, but the polling proliferation actually dropped under his watch, at least at the start. Truth be told the centralization of power in the PMO (prime minister’s office) has increased with just about every new occupant in the top office. The current incumbent’s father, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, is famously credited with the start of the trend toward the centralization of power in the PMO—but he is far from the exception following on.
Regardless of who has done what, the latest news is troubling because it reveals a greater nod to populism is taking hold on the government. Making decisions on what “plays well in Peoria,” rather than what demonstrably needs to be done in the interests of the country is a recipe for disaster. Some decisions are hard and downright unpopular, it is the double-edged sword of democracy, but when decisions are the right ones to make those decisions should be made.
Politicians are already notorious for swaying with the wind, but the rule by polls approach comes at a cost in credibility that is already strained too close to breaking point.
Throughout the history of modern democracy, political parties have played an important role in what the political scientists like to term interest aggregation. Parties tend to coalesce a certain pressure on the leadership to produce policies that at least somewhat trend in the direction of a particular ideology of how things should be done. But as time has gone on, the party role in government has all but disappeared.
Concurrent with that trend has been a centralization of power in the office of the prime minister and cabinet, with a strong tendency to the former—leaving the backbench MPs largely straw horses harnessed into line by party whips. This move to government by a single central strongman and his/her close cadre of friends rarely, if ever, ends well.
While it would be specious to suggest that the thin edge of a wedge leading toward a populist dictatorship is being driven into the halls of Parliament just yet, too much of a dependency on rolling polls in making governing decisions is definitely a worrying trend.