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on December 30, 2001
Veteran Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson presents this thoughtful and coherent reflection on the state of Canadian democracy. Simpson is erudite without being pedantic or obscure. His analysis rings true for anyone who has been paying attention to Canada's national political scene. No system of checks and balances reins in the prime minister, whose power in our political system is little short of absolute, between elections. Opposition parties, for various reasons, cannot currently get their act together to provide a reasonable alternative to the governing party. And the electorate is increasingly tuning out the whole thing.
Now this is where most pundits and dinner-table grumps stop -- that, or they offer one or two hobby-horse solutions -- but Simpson offers a few suggestions that, he thinks, might tip the balance back to a somewhat healthier polity. A revamped electoral system -- he prefers a preferential ballot in single-member constituencies to proportional representation. Fewer patronage opportunities (i.e. appointments) for the prime minister. An elected Senate. And the parties need to stop deluding themselves and reconnect with the Canadian public. However unlikely to be adopted these solutions are in the current political environment, they are rational and moderate; we could do a lot worse.
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on February 9, 2002
Jeffrey Simpson offers very insightful and readable commentary on Canadian political systems in his 'The Friendly Dictatorship.' His observations are exactly in line with what I witnessed as an intern with a backbench Government MP in 2001, and his deep understanding of Canadian history adds an essential depth to his analysis.
That said, the title and cover are especially misleading. For someone who decries the media's over-sensationalization of politics, Simpson (or his publisher) obviously panders to the mass market with a bold, emotion-inducing, and sensational title that does not do justice to Simpson's nuanced arguments. Simpson often (perhaps to often) returns in his book to his catch phrase of 'friendly dictatorship,' but each time he does seems more and more forced. Though Simpson makes good points about the dangers of over-centralized government power, it is completely inappropriate to even imply a similarity between Canada and Libya or North Korea.
"The book takes the form, if you like, of four extended essays rather than an academic treatise, but offers no apologies for that." Of the four, the second (Our Friendly Dictators) and fourth (Now What?) were particularly excellent and enjoyable to read, but the first and third are worth your time as well.
The first essay (Prime-Ministerial Government) is well-written and mostly well argued, but comes back too often and too bluntly to the theme of unfettered Primie-Ministerial power. In fact, Simpson's argument is very similar to the ones I often heard from Opposition MPs as they criticized the iron grip Jean Chretien holds over the parliamentary process. Like those MPs, Mr. Simpson makes a good, logical case in favor of reform but leaves the impression that he is engaging in partisan criticism of Jean Chretien and the Federal Liberals as much as he is engaging in constructive criticism of the Canadian political process.
The title of second essay is somewhat misleading in that the essay focuses far more on the blunders of the NDP, PC, and Reform/Alliance parties than it does on Chretien or any other supposed "friendly dictator." It is, however, a very insightful analysis into the recent troubles of the opposition parties, especially as they relate to the conglomeration of political power in Liberal hands. It is in this section that Simpson's experience in Ottawa truly shows, as he demonstrates his vivid understanding of Canadian politics in the last 25 years.
The third essay (The Decline of Voting) adds a great deal to Simpson's overall thesis, but could also stand alone as an essay on voter apathy and civic disengagement.
The fourth essay is the shortest but the most indicative of Simpson's original thinking. It outlines numerous rational, well thought out, changes that might be made to the Canadian political system, notably the election system, that could "fix" Canadian democracy and bring it out of the perilous situation Simpson spends almost 200 pages describing. The only problem with his suggestions is that the "friendly dictatorship" he describes so eloquently would be loath to institute even a portion of his suggested reforms.
All in all, 'The Friendly Dictatorship' is a very worthwhile read. Simpson's commentary is well-informed, well-reasoned, and interesting. It is a testament to the readability of the book that I, someone who rarely finds time for non-class-related reading, read the book mostly in one [long] sitting. I recommend that anyone with an interest in Canadian politics read this book.
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on June 27, 2002
Simpson is an excellent editorial writer with great insight into the "sausage factory" of politics.
This book is a must-read for anyone who believes that Canadians live in an efficient democracy, that MPs have power, or that the Parliamentary system is the most effective form of government.
Through specific examples, Simpson outlines just why Canada's government may work well on paper, but in practice leads to a truly grotesque charade of democracy.
His suggestions for a new, responsible government at the end of the book are well-reasoned and could easily work, but alas, because of the bureaucratic nightmare that is Canada's constitution, such reforms can never be achieved unless the Provinces all simultaneously decide that they love one another, and the Prime Minister agrees to surrender approximately 50% of his power. It makes me think Canada really does need a "Friendly Dictator", because at this point, a dictator seems like the only one who would be able to create real change in this country.
The only part I disagreed with in this book is his analysis of Canada's party politics. Simpson is a left-of-center "radical centerist" who loves the Canadian status quo and is frightened by anyone who proposes changing it. As such, he argues that the Alliance is forever doomed to suffer electoral defeat because it is too "radical" (ie: dares to challenge the status quo). Simpson calls on the party to create a platform to appeal to "the whole country" but what he actually means is a "platform to apppeal to Ontario." I'm always suspicious of Canadian authors who claim to be able to speak for "what Canada wants" or "how Canadians think" with such authority.
Regardless, this is an excellent book that should be read by all.
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