Entitlement: Then and Now

Elected members of the governing party are apparently enraged over a recent string of Supreme Court rulings that went against the government’s position. As John Ivison explains, the frustration among backbenchers and cabinet members has become “visceral” and is “in danger of boiling over.” In a measure of this frustration, one disaffected MP jabs an accusing finger in the direction of the Conservatives’ political opponents: “The left will celebrate this as a triumph – what they couldn’t achieve politically, they have achieved through decades of court appointees.” There is, in short, much handwringing and indignant talk about appointed judges making decisions instead of elected politicians.

At one level, this view is perplexing, as it ignores the fact that the composition of the Supreme Court is actually an indirect product of democratic elections. After all, in this country, parties that win elections get to appoint Supreme Court judges. This same view, however, invites ridicule when voiced by members of the current governing party, as it is the Conservatives themselves who are largely responsible for the make-up of the Supreme Court. They have been winning elections for many years now and, as a consequence, have been stacking the bench with their preferred choices. Indeed, Stephen Harper has appointed a majority of the current bench (5 out of 8 judges). A 6th judge, the sitting Chief Justice no less, was appointed by the previous conservative prime minister, Brian Mulroney. Given this reality of dominant Conservative influence, bitter grumblings about the influence of “the left” just don’t seem to have much basis in reality.

Well, if such gripes don’t make a great deal of sense on the surface, how else might they be interpreted? There is a sense in which these complaints reflect feelings of entitlement. To be clear, I am not here referring to the super-embarrassing, cringe-worthy, David Dingwall version of entitlement. Rather, the Conservative variety operates under cover of a more populist veneer. So, whereas hapless David Dingwall’s entitlement was really all about David Dingwall, the Conservative sense of entitlement is one that Tory MPs invoke on behalf of all Canadians. Indeed, their earnest and palpable indignation rises up not just for Canadians, but for Canadian democracy itself. Take this quotation from a Conservative MP (also drawn from Ivison’s article):

It’s clear that Canadians don’t make laws through their governments any more. Instead, they watch while unelected courts override important community standards…[Canadians] are powerless to act through their government and left to live by court edict that doesn’t have any public support.

This individual comes across as genuinely aggrieved on behalf of Canadians who are, apparently, losing control of their democracy. This nod to the sanctity of democracy is a fundamentally important aspect of the Conservative sense of entitlement. The party is, after all, the direct heir to the Reform Party’s populist dedication to reinvigorating the country’s democratic institutions. But the version of democracy that serves as their clarion call for action is a meager and anemic approximation. The anger and frustration of disaffected Conservative MPs implies an argument like this: “Well, we won the election, so we should be able to make whatever laws we want.” Their entitlement – the one they so often identify as being under assault – is their presumed right to pass laws and govern exactly as they see fit. They brook no opposition whatsoever and see their uncompromising, divisive and single-minded approach as inherently just and legitimate because they won the election.

This version of entitlement is much worse than the sad and pathetic Dingwall variety, and people of all political stripes should find it deeply troubling. In a democracy, an election victory does not (and cannot) give license for the winning party to arrogate to itself unfettered power. Democracy is not about blindly enacting the dictates of the majority. Nor is it about a government’s sanctimonious entitlement to do whatever it pleases. Crucially, democracy is about an embrace of pluralism as a foundational concept that needs to be preserved and nurtured. In the case of Canada, pluralism achieves concrete meaning and expression in a variety of institutions and traditions, like inclusive elections, the Charter, federalism and judicial independence. Just because a party wins an election does not mean it gets to run roughshod over these institutions and traditions. To do so would be problematic, to say the very least. But to do so in the name of democracy? That manner of effrontery would betray a truly shocking level of contempt for Canadians and their democratic traditions.

But this is where we are at right now. Not satisfied with simply besting their parliamentary opponents on election night and getting on with the business of fulfilling their party platform, the Conservatives busy themselves with settling scores and scouring the social and political landscape for new enemies. And in this search for foes, they have targeted so many of the institutions, agencies, programs and officials that promote and enable our democracy. In a relentless quest for unrestrained power, the most extreme within the Conservative caucus seem to view these institutions not as pillars of a democratic system, but as tainted and illegitimate legacies of previous governments. Among such partisans, our democratic institutions are little more than stubborn, lingering echoes of “the left,” echoes that must be silenced.

Think about the perverse audacity at play here:

The cynical deception and contradictory logic that powers this divisive approach to politics is almost stupefying. It recalls the insidious doublethink that Orwell foreshadowed in Nineteen Eighty-Four: the principle of democracy is invoked in order to enable efforts to discredit and dismantle democratic institutions. This, then, is the real danger of the Conservative approach to democracy: “We won the election, so we should be able to govern how we see fit. We are entitled to our entitlements.”