Ian Shugart, former Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary of the Cabinet, was appointed to the Senate last autumn after a career spanning nearly 40 years in governmentof which 30 years in public service.
On Tuesday afternoon, after suffering health problems for the past few months, he got up too late in the upstairs room to deliver his maiden speech as senator.
He chose restraint as the subject.
“Last week many honorable senators in this place spoke about the risks to democracy in our country. Today I would like to add what I hope would be a helpful contribution to those observations,” said Shugart. “I’m going to talk about the idea of restraint — an idea, a discipline that has proved essential in our constitutional and institutional development.”
Restraint is not very exciting. That’s kind of the point. And on any given day in Parliament, it may not seem like much evidence.
But it is also quietly one of the forces that holds a democracy and a country together. Restraint – self-imposed or imposed on politicians by voters – is often what keeps political systems functioning.
Although Shugart said he hasn’t read it, his call for restraint will be familiar to readers of How democracies diea brilliant and worrying book released in 2018. Authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt celebrate the virtue of “tolerance … the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in exercising their institutional prerogatives”.
“Without tolerance, checks and balances give way to deadlock and dysfunction,” say Levitsky and Ziblatt, both political science professors at Harvard.
Speaking to his fellow senators, Shugart cited three examples of restraint.
Profiles in tolerance
He noted how then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau chose to negotiate and compromise constitutional reform with the provinces to get a deal — despite having the legal authority to unilaterally proceed.
“Colleagues, I must ask if any of today’s major party leaders would exercise that restraint,” Shugart said.
Second, Shugart pointed to Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s decision to legislate his government’s use of the return to work notwithstanding clause — a reversal prompted by a savage public and political outcry.
Finally, Shugart encouraged his colleagues in the upper chamber to resist (or continue to resist) any urge they might have to block legislation sent to them by the House of Commons.
The newly independent Senate has largely disciplined itself so far. While it now changes legislation more often than before, it has not yet refused to pass legislation or insisted that the House bow to its demands for changes.
How it might cope with another government remains an open question. But Senator Peter Harder made a similar argument in 2018 when he suggested that the Senate should be very reluctant to block legislation passed by the House — in part because one day, in the face of truly egregious and anti-democratic legislation, an independent and respected senate could be a valuable safeguard.
Shugart’s comments about the Senate attracted most of the attention this week, but the value of restraint extends far beyond the upper chamber.
Levitsky and Ziblatt focused on the American political system – a system that by design is much more prone to deadlocks and dysfunction. But no system is immune to institutional excess.
A government — especially one with a majority in the House — could go to extremes without actually breaking any laws. It could use closure to ram legislation through the House with a little debate, or suspend Parliament for a long time. It could pass unconstitutional laws and then use the notwithstanding clause to override the courts.
A determined opposition – especially when the governing party does not have a majority – can also do much to delay or block a government’s agenda. And the drastic measures taken by one party or government may eventually lead another party or government to follow suit or even lead the way.
But Shugart also has in mind questions about public policy and the agendas governments are executing.
“I’m not saying that governments should just be pablum and not act on principle. Far, far from it,” Shugart said in an interview following his speech this week.
He suggested that governments could ask themselves a question before acting: “Will this be consensus-building in this country or will it increase division?”
Restraint goes hand in hand with tolerance
In theory, public opinion should limit what politicians are willing to do (or get away with). Ford’s withdrawal from the notwithstanding clause is a good thing example of that – especially if the backlash causes Ford, or other prime ministers, to hesitate before going that far into the future.
But the American experience suggests that partisanship and polarization can make a sufficient number of voters willing to accept almost anything.
Levitsky and Ziblatt relate forbearance to “mutual tolerance … the understanding that competing parties accept each other as legitimate rivals”. After examining the partisan rhetoric that preceded and dominated Barack Obama’s time as president, they concluded that “rising partisan intolerance thus led to an erosion of institutional tolerance.”
Shugart’s concerns also extend beyond institutional and policy issues and into the national discourse as well – and the risk that more and more voters will retreat into partisan echo chambers.
“We need to rediscover how it is that we enter into a dialogue with each other,” he said.
For example, restraint in word can be just as important as restraint in deed.
While the issues in Canadian politics seem minor compared to what How Democracies Die describes, Canada is hardly immune to extreme rhetoric or politicians (encouraged by the destructive incentives of social media) who seem relatively uninhibited in what they can say about their opponents.
Shugart said he is concerned that a lack of genuine dialogue will erode trust in governments and make it increasingly difficult to take action on the problems facing the country. But as parties and their supporters begin to view their counterparts as enemies, it also becomes much more difficult to hold a democracy together — and much easier to justify anti-democratic or destructive behavior.
“Dear Senators, whether it is what we say to or about each other, or how we relearn how to listen and talk to others who do not share our vision, or how we guard the health of our institutions – we must relearn the virtue of restraint,” Shugart said Tuesday, finishing a speech that clocked in at a relatively understated 10 minutes.
“Canada is a large, diverse country – geographically, socially, culturally, economically and philosophically. For each of us, for parties and for institutions, restraint can begin with recognizing that our point of view – legitimate as it is – is not the only one. point of view.
“We have benefited from restraint in this country and in this day and age we need it again. May we all find it in ourselves to exercise restraint.”
Politics in a democracy is often full of passionate intensity – and for very good reasons. But Shugart’s message is essential. In the midst of so much intensity, we need patience to keep things together.