John Robson: Why Governments Keep Getting Bigger

John Robson: Why Governments Keep Getting Bigger
The Canadian flag on the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 28, 2024. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)
John Robson

For a brief moment I felt encouraged. Someone sent a photo of Britain’s new cabinet, small enough to meet at one large table, and asked why ours was so big. I was preparing to offer a Chestertonian paradox involving their Parliament being bigger than ours. But alas and prosaically, I checked and the wider British cabinet is enormous, continuing to erode self-government by subordinating the legislature to the executive branch.

Their House of Commons has 650 seats, making backbenchers harder to control. But don’t worry. They found a way. The UK is by statute limited to 21 “Secretaries of State.” But also up to 50 paid “Ministers of State” and a baffling 83 “Parliamentary Secretaries other than Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury.” And with these fancy titles comes plain old cash.

For mere Parliamentary Secretaries a mere £23,697 bonus (C$41,398), atop parliamentary salaries of £91,346 plus expenses, and for a Minister of State £33,002, as for a mysterious “Minister in charge of a public department of Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom who is not a member of the cabinet, and who is not eligible for a salary under any other provision of this Act,” while up to seven holders of the “Assistant Whip, House of Commons” pocket £19,239. But it’s not about parties, persons, or places.

In Prince Edward Island, Canada’s least populous province, 21 Progressive Conservatives appear to be the largest party in the 27-member Assembly. But actually it’s cabinet, with 12, then nine Tory leftovers, three Liberals, and three Greens. And in Ontario, our most populous province, 35 of 79 Tory MPPs are ministers and 34 more paid “parliamentary assistants.”

It’s not obvious why P.E.I. needs a “Minister of Workforce, Advanced Learning and Population” or Ontario a “Parliamentary Assistant to the Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions.” But it is obvious why various first ministers want umpteen extra-pay jobs for the boys and girls.

For the rest of us the big issue is that, of the vast state apparatus, in Canada now 4.2 million strong, we citizens choose only a few thousand federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal legislators. They are the vital link between us and the machinery of coercive power.

I don’t say “coercive” pejoratively. That “government is force” is necessary to carrying out its vital functions. But the only place the dilemma of establishing a state strong enough to protect you without being strong enough to oppress you was the Anglosphere, and the only solution ever found was an elected legislature that does not govern but checks the executive, refusing to fund its operations or pass its bills unless it respects our rights.

Forget politicians with “vision” to “lead” on a grand voyage to some new Jerusalem where only the ship of state can take us. We want to be left alone to make our own lives and communities without being plundered or socially engineered.

Here I must again contest the modern terminology of the “Trudeau government,” “Starmer government,” or “Ford government” rather than “ministry” or “administration.” Any government must make rules, enforce them, and settle disputes over them, and in Canada those necessarily separate functions are carried out by deliberately separate branches. (Read our Constitution.) The first minister heads only the executive, in a system of checks and balances that also includes federalism.

There are other possibilities. If the legislature combines executive and legislative, it’s called “Convention government” and has earned an evil reputation because it produced state-level anarchy following the American Revolution, and also the 1794-94 “Reign of Terror” under France’s “Committee of Public Safety.” Yet, it’s where we seem indirectly to be heading.

In days of serious yore, kings tried to assert supreme authority by force, including as tragedy under Charles I and farce under James II. But the half-chastened 18th-century Hanovers sought to seduce rather than ravish Parliament, flattering, hiring, and bribing so many MPs the legislature almost dwindled to a colourful ceremonial appendage to Crown power.

They ultimately failed, largely because the American Revolution undid executive tyranny across the Atlantic and smartened up the English, leading to a high noon of parliamentary government where citizens were free, government minimal, and Britain prosperous, mighty, and glorious. But an insidious danger lurked.

If effective executive power, now lodged in an internal prime minister and not an external constitutional monarch, could dominate a legislature now itself supreme even over Magna Carta, nothing could check that executive. So in Round II, cabinets kept swelling in size, perks, pretensions, and caucus control.

British cabinets now consume over a quarter of their Parliament, as here, and legislative restraint of the executive is a fading memory. Which is why the state is so big and unworkable.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, contributing editor to the Dorchester Review, and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus. His most recent documentary is “The Environment: A True Story.”