Thursday, June 9, 2011

Appoint to Prove

The power of the Prime Minister to appoint is immense. Whether it is to the Senate, commissions, diplomatic posts, senior positions in the bureaucracy, or to the judiciary, the Prime Minister has the power to use his or her appointees to shape public policy.

Of course, appointments are also used extensively to reward the faithful - party officials, defeated candidates, long-time kindred spirits. This makes the power a double-edged sword, as such use of it can over time move public opinion and undermine support from the user. One could argue that such use of this power has made a strong contribution to the apathy and cynicism Canadians have for their political system.

So what of Stephen Harper? While he has been able to wield this power since 2006, he is now able to do so as a Prime Minister with a strong majority. He also has, following recent decisions to retire, the opportunity to appoint two Supreme Court justices - appointments which will have a profound impact on the course of public policy in Canada.

All to say, how Stephen Harper exercises this power over the next 4-5 years will be important. And make no mistake, there will be pressure on him.

On one side, you have the infamous base. The social conservative element of the Conservative Party will be looking at the appointments the Prime Minister makes (particularly those to the judiciary) for signs that decades of perceived liberal values dominating Canadian public policy are coming to an end.

On the other side is the centrist voter in Canada. While there has been a lot of debate recently about whether Canada is moving right, the fact remains that we continue to be a body politic that is most comfortable in the centre. This group will be watching to see whether the Prime Minister uses his appointments to lurch Canada to the right, to attack his opponents and reward his faithful - things they do not want to see.

All of this suggests that we can expect a balancing act of sorts for Mr. Harper. The base will be rewarded and mollified through some appointments, though I believe that these will be in areas which have less impact on the national scene. They may play locally or are targeted, but overall will not help frame the national narrative on the Prime Minister.

However, my sense is that for those appointments which clearly matter to the majority of Canadians - such as to the Supreme Court - the Prime Minister will be reasonably balanced. Process will be emphasized and effort will be made to not be overtly partisan or ideological.

Why? I may be thinking wishfully but I am hoping that Mr. Harper realizes he has a point to prove - that he is prepared to govern for all Canadians.

This was his pledge on election night and it is the one which I will ultimately be watching most closely.

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