Skip to content

Uzelman: The threat to democracy from China and from within

A column by Bruce Uzelman

~BW Uzelman

The Globe and Mail gained access to classified CSIS reports, which reveal how China interfered in the 2021 federal election. China’s operatives directed donations to selected candidates (usually Liberal), and used misinformation to pressure immigrants from Mainland China to vote for Liberal candidates. The Prime Minister has downplayed the impact on our elections. But three Conservative MPs targeted by China, in ridings with a high level of mainland Chinese immigrants, were defeated.

The Prime Minister has not answered basic questions. Was the Chinese interference responsible for the defeat of these MPs? What actions has the government taken to prevent China meddling in the future?

Journalists have extensively covered this issue, as they should. Domestic threats to Canada’s democracy receive much less press coverage. But they are as insidious and harmful as the foreign threats. The centralization of power in the prime minister’s office (PMO) began under PM Pierre Trudeau in the late 1960’s. Subsequent PMs further concentrated power in the PMO. Under the Harper Conservatives, the influence of the PMO was evident in the identical talking points of Conservative MPs and cabinet ministers alike. Harper used the PMO to direct the bureaucracy, MPs and ministers.

The concentration of power, today, has reached historic proportions. The cabinet, individual ministers, members of parliament, parliamentary committees and public servants all have legitimate roles in policy formation and legislation. MPs are tasked with representing their constituents in government. Today, the influence of MPs in parliament and committees, which has long been tenuous, is very limited. The PM and the PMO have usurped much of the MPs’ power. MPs are expected to follow the party line.

In recent years, the public service has been humbled. Kathryn May of Policy Options wrote a report in 2022 entitled, “All powerful PMO, mistrust ‘destroying’ the public service: Paul Tellier”. Tellier, a former head of the public service under PM Brian Mulroney, told May, “The current government, with centralization of everything in the PMO, is in the process of destroying the public service ….”

He said that civil servants are discouraged from delivering innovative advice because the minister must run everything by the PMO. If the PM trusts the minister and his advisors, why have six people from the PMO check their work, asked Tellier. He said trust must be rebuilt between the politicians and the bureaucracy; the PM should tell the ministers to consult their deputies. May (and Tellier) believe the problems began in the Harper era. The Accountability Act, a response to the sponsorship scandal, was focused on rules and compliance. The public service lost respect, May says, and its role was diminished.

Cabinet ministers, too, have lost power with the ascendancy of the PM and his office. Tellier finds the situation intolerable, “There is no way that if I were a cabinet minister, I would allow a bunch of people in PMO to tell me how to do my work. And it’s at every level, it’s not only for junior ministers, the most senior ministers… It’s for deputy ministers and departments.”

The growth of the power of the PM and PMO is demonstrated in recent events. First, former Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s book detailed the overreach of the PMO. When he refused ministers’ funding requests for affordability reasons, he revealed, they would go to the PMO to support the request. This “became common as time passed.” Morneau said he and the Finance Department provided a number during the Pandemic that would support individuals who had lost jobs but not threaten the finances of the government. The PMO, he said, replaced the figure with $500 because it “sounded better”. These are examples of the PMO seeing issues politically, distorting policy and helping to grow a massive deficit.

Second, the government’s estimates reveal it has requested $21.4 billion to outsource professional services, according to John Ivison of the Globe and Mail. This includes the $1 billion for management consulting that has been in the news, and over $20 billion of other services. This has increased by about one third since 2017-18. That the public service is unable to provide these basic services is troubling.

The Trudeau Government came to power in 2015 with a democratic reform agenda. But today, the impotence of the MPs and the reduced capacities of cabinet ministers (and the public service) are evident, as is the increased power of the PMO and the PM. The democratic ethos of this government is weak. None of that will change. Unfortunately, the Conservatives don’t have an unblemished history of promoting democratic government, either. Pierre Poilievre’s record as Minister of Democratic Reform in the Harper Government was discouraging.

Canadians, as well, are not much concerned about the health of our democracy. And if we don’t care about it, we are destined to get more of the same – an all-powerful PM and PMO, poor governance, poor policy and poor results!


Bruce W Uzelman

I grew up in Paradise Hill, a village in Northwestern Saskatchewan. I come from a large family. My parents instilled good values, but yet afforded us, my seven siblings and I, much freedom to do the things we wished to do. I spent my early years exploring the hills and forests and fields surrounding the village, a great way to come of age.

I attended the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. I considered studying journalism at one point, but did not ultimately pursue that. However, I obtained a Bachelor of Arts, Advanced with majors in Economics and Political Science in 1982.


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.