The theory and practice of responsible government in Canada do not always match up. In theory, the prime minister and cabinet make up what is called “the active executive” in Parliament. Collectively, they are the government. They are tasked with setting the policy agenda for Parliament and most bills introduced in the House of Commons are “government” bills as opposed to private members’ bills. Responsible government, the foundational principle of Canadian democracy, means that the government needs the confidence of the House of Commons in order to govern with legitimacy. In this way, Parliament provides the essential link between the people and their government. If a majority of elected representatives in the House of Commons do not support the government, the prime minister and the full cabinet must either resign or the prime minister must advise the Governor General to dissolve Parliament, which would trigger a general election. The prime minister is sometimes called “primus inter pares”, which means “first among equals.” He or she is the “first minister” in the cabinet.
In practice, though, executive power in Canada has evolved differently than the above description would suggest. The prime minister is an extremely powerful individual – much more than just a “first minister.” In fact, it is often suggested that Canada’s prime minister is even more powerful than are his or her counterparts in other Westminster parliamentary systems with comparable institutions and cultures. Gordon Robertson, former clerk of the Privy Council in Canada, has described the Canadian situation in the following terms: “With the lack of checks and balances, the prime minister in Canada is perhaps the most unchecked head of government among the democracies.”(See full article here.)
A prime minister’s most trusted advisors are usually not his cabinet ministers. Instead, the Prime Minister’s Office (the PMO) has become the “real” cabinet, in a way. It is the locus of considerable power where policies are hatched and screened, important decisions on appointments are made, speeches are written, and communications strategies are devised.
Every cabinet has its “stars” – prominent, high profile members who have a tremendous amount to offer in terms of their popularity, their policy competence, their political savvy, or their oratory skills. But, it is also the case that many ministers are inexperienced and have no special expertise in their respective portfolios. When Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to power after over a decade of back-to-back Liberal governments, he was faced with the predicament of appointing a cabinet from a group of MPs with almost no cabinet experience among them. Prime ministers appoint their cabinets largely on the basis of political imperatives and considerations. For example, a federal cabinet must be balanced with respect to region and gender. Arguably, today’s cabinets are much too large to make decisions as a collective, which undermines ministers’ individual and collective power and autonomy. The current federal cabinet has 39 members; this number is more suitable to a focus group rather than a deliberative and/or decisive body.
Some former cabinet ministers, including Lowell Murray who was a minister in Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government, have suggested that cabinet is not as powerful as it once was. He harkens back to a time when ministers had stature and power of their own within the ministry and could not be easily disciplined or dismissed. As Lawrence Martin explains in his best-selling book, Harperland, Murray recalls a time when certain “strong cabinet ministers,” including Flora MacDonald and John Crosbie, were listened to and respected within cabinet for their extraordinary abilities with respect to politics and policy (Martin, 2010: 126). Nowadays, the measure of a cabinet minister is his or her ability to perform in Question Period.
Last month, five cabinet ministers in Manitoba resigned, citing “grave concerns” about not being able to speak independently in their government. The group of five included the ministers of finance, justice and health – three of the most powerful and prestigious portfolios at the provincial level. These resignations seem to indicate a crisis of confidence for Premier Greg Selinger, but the speed with which he re-filled these positions (later that afternoon) suggests that ministers are easily replaceable, even the ones who sit atop the most important departments. Further, it suggests that prime ministers and premiers can keep on governing, even when they lose the support of their most elite ministers.
The rise of the PMO and the relative decline of the cabinet is not a new hypothesis. This narrative has been on the public record for years, as consecutive prime ministers have all done their part to justify the growth and power of the PMO. In 1999, Donald Savoie published a book called Court Government and the Collapse of Accountability in Canada and the United Kingdom, in which he documents the trend away from cabinet government toward government by the prime minister and a few carefully selected but unelected advisors.
If we are indeed moving away from a model of cabinet government, this is problematic with respect to government accountability. How do we hold the executive to account if major decisions are taken by unelected political appointees? How does Parliament perform its scrutiny function effectively when only cabinet ministers, but not powerful political appointees in the PMO, are subject to questions during Question Period? And, where does the voter fit into all of this? The decline of cabinet is only part of the problem; the House of Commons – what David Smith has called “the people’s House,” the only place where Canadians have elected representation – has devolved to state of near-paralysis due to excessive partisanship. Canadians’ link to their government is weakening.
There are no easy solutions here, but one thing is clear: our system needs revival. This is possible only if the relevant actors exert the political will to make change happen. All political parties promise democratic reform at one time or another but, once elected, the incentives to follow through can sometimes disappear. We are sure to have an election soon. The best thing that voters can do is show up. Get involved. Cast your ballot. Let them know we’re listening. Our consistently low voter turnout might (understandably) give politicians the impression that we are not concerned with what they are doing and that government accountability is not a priority for us. This does not help at all.
Lori Turnbull is an Associate Professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University. She is the editor at constitution.ca