Mark Jarvis is still a little overwhelmed.
“We were definitely not expecting to win the Donner Prize,” he said.
“We learned in March that our book was on the short list for consideration by the Donner Canadian Foundation, and my colleagues and I were pleased just about that. But when we went to the awards banquet in May and he (Allan Gotlieb, chairman of the Foundation) announced our names, well, it was incredible.
Actually,” Jarvis (37) added with a ready laugh, “I think we were all just hoping that someone was actually reading the book.”
Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government, the book by Peter Aucoin, Mark D. Jarvis and Lori Turnbull was awarded the 2012 Donner Prize, valued at $50,000.
The Donner Canadian Foundation established the annual prize to recognize and reward the best public policy thinking, writing and research by a Canadian. It provides a spring board for authors who may not necessarily be well-known, but who can make a meaningful contribution to policy discourse.
Author Mark Jarvis was born and raised in Morrisburg, a graduate of St. Mary-St. Cecilia, and of St. Joseph’s in Cornwall.
He recently learned that his book has also been shortlisted for the Smiley Prize, named in honour of Donald Smiley, and presented by the Canadian Political Science Association. That winner will be announced in June.
“This has all been a great honour,” Jarvis said. “And in many ways, a true surprize.”
Following his education in South Dundas, Jarvis attended Trent University in Peterborough where he took a degree in sociology. He won his Master’s degree from Carleton University, again in sociology.
Jarvis is currently a doctoral candidate at the School of Public Administration with the University of Victoria.
I asked him how a sociologist came to change his academic direction toward the area of public administration, government ac-countability and public policy.
“Well,” Jarvis said. “It really was a kind of round about trip. While I was taking my sociology degree at Carleton, I was offered a job in public service in Ottawa. My task involved doing research into accountability for a small branch of the government. In the process, I gradually became interested in the whole concept of accountability.”
He published Modernizing Government Accountability: A Framework for Reform (2005) and The Adoption of the Accounting Officer System in Canada: Changing Relationships? (2009) among others.
He also met the late professor Peter Aucoin and professor Lori Turnbull.
“We found we held a number of ideas in common, and gradually the outline of a book took shape. What we were interested in was some of the dysfunction within our Parliamentary system. In particular, we looked at the specific powers that enable prime ministers to inhibit Parliament from ensuring the government is accountable to the citizens it serves.”
The three first took their ideas, in the form of an opinion piece, to a national newspaper. The paper refused to print the article.
“Peter, highly regarded in his field, already felt very strongly about the issue of power and accountability,” Jarvis explained, “and this paper’s absolute refusal to print our article pretty much motivated us to develop our views more fully and to approach an academic publishing firm with them. They said go ahead.”
Dividing up chapters, and meeting to discuss ideas and to make revisions, took the trio from March of 2009 to the book’s completion in 2010. It came out in 2011.
Sadly, Peter Aucoin recently died, in his 67th year. The book which would win him the Donner Prize was among his last.
What lies at the core of Democratizing the Constitution?
“The concept of accountability is a major personal concern to me,” Jarvis said.
“I think it is a basic premise of our democratic system that the people to whom we have delegated authority to act in our name, must justly discharge that duty. Individuals have to be held to account for the acts and decisions they make.
We all want effective government and good outcomes in Canada. This cannot happen without accountability.”
The book has created some controversy over its argument that prime ministers have too much power.
“I am not claiming that prime ministers in Canada are abusing power the way leaders of other countries do. Think of the corruption confronted by Arab Spring. Think of someone like Putin, who practices extreme control and manipulation,” Jarvis explained,
“But improvement is needed. Prime ministers can retain and use Crown powers resulting in a situation where they have almost unfettered power to make decisions – partisan and otherwise – that limit or negate Parliament’s role in our democratic system.”
Jarvis readily admits that any changes or “improvements” will require re-opening the Canadian Charter of Rights.
“Canadians are very reluctant to do this,” he said. “Every time we’ve tinkered with the Charter in the past, well, the outcome has not been productive. Think Meech Lake.
We now seem to have developed a kind of national paralysis or great fear of opening the Charter up for revision or a second look. I contend, and this is my opinion, that the current level of power held by prime ministers is too much with regards to parliament.”
The book advances research and specific situations which the authors believe support their point of view.
What lies ahead for Mark Jarvis, with the Donner Prize on his list of accomplishments?
“With some luck I can now really focus on my (doctoral) dissertation,” he laughed. “I need to defend it sooner or later, and my committee would certainly prefer it to be sooner.”