Primus Inter Pares

“I’m asking for your resignation. I am the Prime Minister. I name my ministers. I’m demanding your resignation. I have the right to do so.”- Lester Pearson, prime minister and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize to Mr. Dupuis, cabinet minister

Canadian prime ministers have always had the unilateral authority to select a cabinet ‘team’; to hire and fire ministers; to shuffle cabinet at will; to appoint senators, Supreme Court judges, deputy ministers and exempt staff. However, despite the seemingly divine authority that prime ministers possess, the history books tell us that they did not become full-blown autocrats until the late 1960s. It is, therefore, not the rules of the game that have changed in the past half century. Those have remained the same since Confederation. Instead, after spending the better part of six months researching prime ministerial power in Canada, I have come to the melancholy realization that it is not the rules that are the problem; rather, it is how the game is being played that must change. I use the word melancholy instead of gloomy, bleak, hopeless, or painful because in the game of politics it is much easier to change the way the players interact with the rules than the fundamental underpinnings of the game itself.

Canada has witnessed grotesque perversions of prime ministerial power throughout history: the Pacific Scandal, the King-Byng Affair, the Sponsorship Scandal, and the Harper prorogation, to name a few. However, it is my contention that cabinet ministers have been the lesser-known, but equally damaged victims of prime ministerial despotism, especially since the 1960s – which is a problem for Canadian democracy. A BIG PROBLEM. Sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it? After all, cabinet is an appointed body; all of its deliberations take place in secret; and most of its documents are sealed for decades before the public can access them. So why is it such a big deal if cabinet ministers’ power has been usurped by the prime minister?

Well, the short answer is that the cabinet represents the last check on prime ministerial authority that Canadians have. That is, because all laws and policies originate from cabinet, it is imperative that cabinet ministers are in a position to meaningfully challenge the prime minister on governmental objectives. If ministers simply rubber-stamp every initiative that the prime minister and his lackeys (or as Donald Savoie calls them, “courtiers”) in the PMO bring to the cabinet table then a government of many quickly turns into a government of one. Unfortunately, just that has happened. If you want to know more about how the prime minister has consolidated power over cabinet ministers, feel free to read my thesis in a month or two. For now, however, you will have to take my word that the prime minister is no longer primus inter pares (or ‘first among equals’) in cabinet. Instead, he is simply primus: a king, “le boss”, god.

As such, it seems like now is a great time to rethink how we ought to go about playing politics in Canada. Luckily, the following piece sets out to do just that. Below you will find one modest proposal for reforming prime ministerial despotism over cabinet ministers in Canada. It is a little half-baked, but that is the point. I want to know what you think. Enjoy!


On Dec. 3, 2013 Conservative MP, Michael Chong introduced bill C-559 to the House of Commons. The Private Member’s Bill entitled: “An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act (reforms)” (otherwise known as “the Reform Act”) sought to empower both cabinet ministers and MPs vis-à-vis the prime minister. In Chong’s own words:

“[The Reform Act] is a bill that would strengthen the principle on which our democratic institutions in Canada were founded, that being the principle of responsible government… It would restore and strengthen the concept of confidence in House of Commons parliamentary party caucuses and would reinforce the caucus as a decision-making body.”

Section 6 of the Reform Act is important to note. It provides that:

“(i) a leadership review may be initiated by the submission of a written notice to the caucus chair signed by at least 15% of the members of the party’s caucus, (ii) a leadership review is to be conducted by secret ballot, with the result to be determined by a majority vote of the caucus members present at a meeting of the caucus, and, (iii) if a majority of caucus members present at the meeting referred to in subparagraph (ii) vote to replace the leader of the party, a second vote of the caucus shall be conducted immediately by secret ballot to appoint a person to serve as the interim leader of the party until a new leader has been duly elected by the party.

In plain language, s.6 of the Act gives the parliamentary caucus the power to remove a party leader, even if that leader is a sitting prime minister. This provision represents a palpable departure from the belief that “what the parliamentary group did not create, it may not destroy, at least without ratification by the party ‘grass roots’.”, as Mackenzie King put it. Indeed, if the Reform Act were ratified by all parties it would be, as Chong says, a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to reclaim… influence in caucus and, by extension, Parliament.” Unfortunately, the Conservatives have been the only party to ratify s.6 of the Act thus far.

The reason why the Reform Act is important to note is because it represents a shift in the way that Canadians are thinking about executive power. However, despite the progressive nature of the Reform Act, I argue that a truly “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to empower parliamentarians will also take the political executive into account.  Therefore, I seek to take s.6 of the Reform Act several steps further.

Despite the fact that there are countless other reforms that could empower cabinet ministers vis-à-vis the prime minister, it is evident that palpable changes to the status quo are most likely to come about if they are done at the institutional level. Extraneous factors such as the media and the rise of executive federalism, for example, have taken on a path-dependent logic that makes them very difficult to reform without paradigmatic shifts. In the case of the media, it is unlikely that news outlets are capable of shifting away from the 24-Hour news cycle or “de-celebratizing” prime ministers unless societal attitudes towards media consumption shift enormously. Similarly, because executive federalism is an outcome of highly complex governing in the 20th and 21st centuries, it is difficult to reimagine a change in intergovernmental decision-making that would still allow for inter-jurisdictional programs to be negotiated and administered in a more efficient manner. This is not to say that the latter is impossible, but rather that it is unlikely given the inherent interdependence between the federal and provincial governments today.  Consequently, I am putting forward one recommendation that will directly empower cabinet ministers vis-à-vis the prime minister at the institutional level.

It is argued here that the following reform address the roots of ministerial disempowerment in Canada’s parliamentary system. That is, this reform will meaningfully change the status quo without changing the nature of extra-parliamentary institutions such as the media or executive federalism and without undermining the fundamental logic of responsible government. In fact, if this recommendation is adopted it is likely that Canadian democracy as a whole will function better because cabinet ministers will be empowered to play a more constructive role in all political institutions.

Recommendation:  All cabinet ministers, including the prime minister, are to be selected by the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary wings of their respective party before a general election has taken place. Moreover, all cabinet ministers, including the sitting prime minister, are to be subject to ‘leadership’ reviews by members of the parliamentary caucus.

Canadian prime ministers (and all party leaders, for that matter) have been selected by delegates from both the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary wings of their respective parties since 1919. The aforementioned method of leadership selection has ostensibly democratized the process by which a sitting prime minister comes into power. However, an unintended consequence of the democratization of party leadership selection is that it has put sitting prime ministers in what Savoie calls “unassailable” positions of power. As a consequence of their increased popular legitimacy –  which should not be conflated with democratic legitimacy –, Canadian prime ministers have dominated cabinet to an unprecedented degree compared to other Anglo-Celtic Westminster parliamentary democracies . Therefore, one is left to draw the conclusion that if Canadian prime ministers are to be primus inter pares in cabinet, that all other ministers of the Crown should enjoy the same amount of popular legitimacy as the first minister. In other words, if the prime minister has the ability to dominate cabinet decision making because she enjoys the popular support of the extra-parliamentary party, then perhaps the best way to restore a balance of power is to elevate all other ministers to the prime minister’s level.

Furthermore, as it stands, the Reform Act empowers sitting MPs to initiate leadership reviews and select an interim leader until the entire party can select a new leader. It is recommended here that – in order to completely remove the appointment of cabinet ministers from the prime minister’s powers – the leadership review mechanism outlined in the reform Act be extended to all cabinet ministers. These reviews would ensure that it is the caucus that decides whether or not a cabinet minister should remain in her or his portfolio, as opposed to the prime minister.

It is worth outlining the specifics of the proposed reform in brief. Once again, it is recommended here that cabinet is selected by party membership before a general election has been held. It would ultimately be up to the party to develop specific voting procedures and policies pursuant to the selection of cabinet. For instance, as discussed below, some pan-Canadian parties might decide to build regional representation into cabinet selection by placing regional quotas and caps on the amount of members who can run for a given position in cabinet. However, there are two requirements that all parties would have to adhere to in order for this reform to bring about meaningful change. The first is that only sitting MPs are eligible to run for positions in cabinet. The merits of having experienced MPs in cabinet are discussed in full below. The other requirement is that sitting MPs initiate leadership reviews – not members of the extra-parliamentary wing. The latter requirement will ensure that elected officials hold the balance of power in determining the performance of cabinet while still empowering all party members to take part in the selection of new ministers.

The timing of when cabinet is selected obviously carries virtues and vices. If cabinets are selected by parties before a general election, it is not unreasonable to maintain that cabinet minister elects will capitalize on the electoral security of winning their respective ridings. In the event that a cabinet minister ‘wins’ a portfolio, but goes on to lose her or his riding, however, an all-party election would be called to replace said minister after a general election – which could be a logistical drawback. On the positive side, if cabinet is selected by parties prior to elections, it is likely that campaigns would be less leader-driven and more focused on which cabinet – as opposed to simply which prime minister – is best suited to govern. However, the latter option is more feasible for opposition parties than for parties in government. This is because incumbent parties would already have a cabinet in place heading into an election and would thus be incentivized to re-elect their existing cabinet. Conversely, if a cabinet-wide review is undertaken prior to the dissolution of government it is entirely feasible for incumbent parties to put forward a new cabinet ‘team’ at the outset of the campaign period. What is important, in any case, is that the Canadian public knows not only who their prime minister could be when they go to the polls, but also who their entire government might be.

It should be noted that a less extreme solution to the problem of prime ministerial dominance in cabinet is for the political executive to be selected by all sitting MPs in the House of Commons, as is the case with the Consensus Government model used in Nunavut and the North-West Territories. Under Consensus Government, the first minister and cabinet are chosen by all MLA’s by way of a secret ballot after a general election has been held. Consequently, according to Graham White, “ministers are beholden to MLAs rather than premieres for their cabinet posts.” Despite the fact that this reform is progressive and well-suited to parliamentary governance, I argue that political culture inhibits it from being realistically implemented at the federal level. That is, because leadership conventions have become the norm in federal politics, it is much more feasible to work within the bounds of the existing framework than eliminate it all together.

The positive consequences of adopting this reform are four fold. Firstly, the prime minister (and a handful of his unelected senior advisers) would no longer have the power to unilaterally appoint cabinet ministers behind closed doors. Instead, all cabinet ministers would be appointed by the governor general on advice from the governing party as a whole. Because the governor general is still responsible for appointing cabinet – which is, after all, no more than a committee of Her Majesty’s Privy Council –, this recommendation fits well within Canada’s existing constitutional order.

It also logically follows that cabinet ministers would no longer serve at the pleasure of the prime minister under this proposed reform. Rather, because all ministers serve at the pleasure of their party, it is reasonable to assert that they would be in a better position to challenge the prime minister without fear of being removed from cabinet. By the same token, this recommendation also delegitimizes the prime minister’s ability to shuffle cabinet at will. According to White, frequent cabinet shuffles are a “defining feature of the modern-day Canadian cabinet.” In fact, White notes that Canadian prime ministers (and provincial premiers) shuffle their cabinets more than in any other Westminster system. The reasons for doing so: “to reward solid performers and remove political deadwood; to give the appearance of freshness and progress… and to alter the political composition or outlook of cabinet.” It is my position, however, that in a democracy one minister should not have the power to determine the composition or direction of government; to decide who is performing well and who is falling behind. That is the job of a king, not a prime minister. Instead, the caucus should be able to decide.

Not only do frequent cabinet shuffles undermine ministerial authority within their respective departments (an ‘involved’ minister will only know 20% her departmental on goings), but they also diminish a ministers’ ability to meaningfully advocate for departmental needs within cabinet. Peter Aucoin, Mark Jarvis and Lori Turnbull highlight the amount of power that comes with having the ability to shuffle cabinet at will: “[one cannot overemphasize the degree to which  Canadian prime ministers have been able to use “Cabinet shuffles,” entailing some mix of promotions, demotions, lateral transfers, and dismissals, to keep ministers in line with the prime minister’s agenda.” On the latter, cabinet ministers are serving on their portfolios less time than ever before, which indicates that ministers are becoming increasingly disposable. Frequent cabinet shuffles also have negative implications for the overall collegiality of cabinet, as well as the functioning of line-departments. Therefore, if the prime minister no longer enjoys the power – or at least perceived legitimacy – to shuffle cabinets, it can be said that ministers will enjoy a higher degree of authority both within their departments and cabinet.

Secondly, it is likely that the proposed reform would limit the size of cabinet to a reasonable number of ministers – which would in turn improve the overall collegiality of cabinet. This is because it would be logistically difficult to select more than a couple dozen ministers in a single convention. What is more likely is that parties will opt to standardize the size of cabinets or periodically decide how many ministers would be required to carry out their platform. It should be noted that Canadian federal cabinets have grown enormously since Confederation. In fact, while cabinet was originally comprised of 13 ministers under Macdonald, by 1907 the average federal cabinet contained 15 ministers. The size of cabinet steadily grew throughout the 20th century and hit its apex under Mulroney, whose cabinet contained 40 ministers in the late 1980s. The size of cabinet fell back into the 30s under Chretien and Martin, but then rebounded to 40 ministers in 2015 under Harper. Currently, the Liberal cabinet sits at 31 ministers – all of whom, despite their age, gender, or ethnicity, are nonetheless beholden to Mr. Trudeau for their portfolios. While the literature suggests that the size of cabinet does not directly correlate to the level of decentralization within it, one thing is certain: the ability to appoint ministers gives the prime minister some of the most valuable ‘carrots’ that any politician could dream of possessing. Consequently, by removing these ‘carrots’ (i.e., the power to reward loyal partisans with cabinet portfolios), the prime minister is significantly weaker.

Furthermore, positive partisanship still remains intact under the proposed recommendation. That is, by opening the convention process up to all cabinet ministers, it is likely that political parties will experience more participation simply by virtue of the fact that the extra-parliamentary wing has the power to select more than just the party leader. Moreover, such a shift has the potential to, once again, restore the regional minister model within cabinet. Under the proposed recommendation, regional footholds within parties could secure support from delegates in their regions and subsequently ‘win’ a spot in cabinet on the promise of advocating for local interests. Parties can even go so far as to set quotas for the amount of ministers they want in cabinet from each region, if they so choose. Quotas and caps can also be made for sociological factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, etc.

Finally, the recommendation that all ministers be selected in the same way as the prime minster has the potential to prevent the harm of experienced prime ministers taking advantage of inexperienced ministers’ naivety.  One of the most formidable powers that a prime minister has over cabinet stems from the fact that ministers are relatively inexperienced legislators, and therefore are less able to take advantage of cabinet procedures. Interestingly enough, according to Matthew Kerby,

“14 per cent of all cabinet appointments made between 1949 and 1990 went to parliamentarians who possessed fewer than two years’ total experience in the House of Commons. Compare this figure with the United Kingdom where ministers who served between 1945 and 1984 ‘had an average of 12.2 years of parliamentary experience before becoming ministers, and fewer than 10 per cent of ministers were appointed with less than five years’ experience’”

The fact that the current Liberal cabinet contains 18 (out of 31) rookie MPs reaffirms the trend that Kerby highlights.

As White argues, “it is unhealthy for Canadian democracy for so many ministers to attain office without experiencing life as a private member.” That is, in order for a minister to effectively head a department and meaningfully partake in cabinet debates, it is imperative that said minister has either sufficient experience as a legislator or formidable clout within the governing party. Both of these conditions safeguard ministers from becoming docile carriers of rubber stamps for the prime minister. As such, one of the best ways to ensure that cabinet ministers have experienced “life as a private member” is to make their appointment contingent on being re-elected to the House of Commons. The selection of cabinet by party membership incentivizes those MPs who have proven their worth in their ridings, in caucus, and in their party, for that matter, to rise to the top, should their party win a government mandate. In the case of the latter, it is reasonable to attest that those ministers who ‘win’ cabinet positions are sufficiently well-versed in governing or, at the very least, have the confidence of their party. Therefore, it is my belief that if ministers are selected in the same way as the prime minister, the harms associated with inexperienced ministers in cabinet will be mitigated.

Regardless of the positive consequences associated with reforming cabinet selection processes, it is important to analyze the negative implications of such a reform. Such analysis will serve to reinforce the notion that, on a balance, the positive attributes of reforming cabinet selection processes outweigh the negatives.

Firstly, many students of Canadian government and politics have noted that powerful prime ministers are an inherent feature of Westminster parliamentary systems. In fact, W.A. Matheson writes, “[b]ecause of [the prime minister’s] key role as builder and master of the cabinet and as leader of the majority party, the Prime Minister’s position is preeminent… he brings together the political leaders of the various subcultures and keeps them together, he is the one person who becomes a truly national [] figure.” Moreover, in the words of the current federal government: “The Prime Minister decides on the organization, procedures and composition of the Cabinet. This includes establishing Cabinet committees, selecting their membership and convening the Cabinet itself. In practical terms, the Prime Minister forms a team, decides on the process for collective decision making, and builds and adapts the machinery of government in which the team will operate.”

Thus, given the prime minister’s preeminent role in determining the overall direction of cabinet, one can certainly hold that an attempt to weaken the role of a prime minister would inhibit him from being, in the words of White, “sufficiently autocratic”.

Under the proposed reform, the prime minister’s ability to be autocratic would be significantly weakened. However, this is not to say that just because cabinet ministers are selected in the same way as the prime minister that all ministers would enjoy the same powers over cabinet organization. Indeed, the recommendation that all cabinet ministers are selected by party membership seeks to empower these ministers within their existing departmental and deliberative roles; not suggest that cabinet move forward without a leader. It is the notion that the leader of cabinet, conversely, ought to be primus inter pares and opposed to simply primus that my recommendation seeks to address.

In practical terms, a first among equals would possess the responsibility to ensure that cabinet (and all of its committees, for that matter) is a coherent, deliberative and collective decision-making body. Granted, such a responsibility might entail keeping cabinet in line with agreed-upon legal and policy initiatives – but it certainly ought not to permit the prime minister to form her or his cabinet ‘team’, decide when a consensus has been reached, fire ministers for non-compliance, shuffle cabinet at will, or circumvent cabinet on major policy decisions. In the latter set of actions, the prime minister is no longer “sufficiently autocratic”; instead, he is – as Savoie puts it – a king.

Opponents of the recommendation that all cabinet ministers are to be selected by their party might also argue that such a reform would have disastrous consequences for the representational imperative. Once again, the representational imperative is, as William Cross puts it, the “political principle that insists that, so far as possible, cabinet include “representatives” of all regions as well as all important ethnic, cultural and linguistic groups and various other politically salient groups (such as women and those who hold certain occupations).” The representational imperative is ostensibly intended to ensure that all provinces and “politically salient groups” have the ability to bring their concerns to cabinet deliberations. After all in a highly diverse country such as Canada, one would reasonably expect that its most important decision-making body represents the country’s distinct geographic, social, cultural, and linguistic characteristics. Others, like Matheson, have argued that the representational imperative has meant that “every cabinet must contain at least a few dullards or nonentities to represent some important interest”.

Criticisms aside, the consequence of removing cabinet selection from the hands of the prime minister is that new selection processes no longer guarantee equitable representation within cabinet. For instance, if a party is able to secure a majority government without electing many seats in Quebec (as was the case in 2011 with the Conservatives), it is entirely likely that no ministers from that region will ‘win’ a position in cabinet. Such a scenario would certainly have disastrous consequences for national unity. It is, thus, for the reason that the representational imperative is important to Canadians that I recommend parties build regional and sociological representation into their cabinet selection processes. For example, parties that are dedicated to making Canadian cabinets ‘look like Canada’ (as is the case with the current Liberal government) can devise a system of quotas and caps that dictate who can run for a given cabinet position. Such a system would ensure that the representational imperative is respected and that cabinet selection is placed in the hands of the many instead of the prime minister alone.

Negative consequences aside, it is fairly evident that, on a balance, it would be healthier for Canadian democracy if the entire cabinet – as opposed to simply the first minister – were to be selected by the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary wings of their respective party. Despite the fact that the proposed reform does not address prime ministerial power in the media or in the intergovernmental arena directly, it has been argued here that the above reforms will shift the political atmosphere in a way that incentivizes extra-parliamentary political institutions to refocus their efforts on entire governments instead of the prime minister alone. Moreover, the above recommendation will drastically diminish the power of the prime minister in cabinet vis-à-vis other ministers. That is, if cabinet ministers are no longer appointed by the prime minister, but rather by their party, it is reasonable to attest that they will no longer feel beholden to the prime minister for their cabinet position. By the same token, this reform will delegitimize the prime ministers who shuffle cabinet at will or fire ministers without reasonable cause. After all, under the proposed reform, it is the caucus who decides whether or not a cabinet minister is fit to continue in her portfolio – not the primus.

One thing is obvious: there has never been a golden age of Canadian democracy. Prime ministers have always been autocratic – even the ones who are able to woo the public with snappy one-liners and flashy public relations schemes. However, after nearly 150 years of despotic prime ministerial behaviour, I believe that it is time for Canadians to reimagine how power ought to be disbursed in the country’s most important decision-making body. After all, if it is, in fact, 2016, then maybe a gender-balanced and ethnically diverse cabinet is not enough. If it is 2016, then maybe we should not allow cabinet to be appointed in the same way that it was in 1867. If it is 2016, then maybe we should look past political rhetoric that seeks to appease the lowest common denominator and pressure those in power to make ‘Real Change’ in Ottawa. In that regard, perhaps it is not that Canada has lost its way; instead, could it be that it has simply yet to find it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “Primus Inter Pares

  1. Sort of like American Judges being elected in their area. I would be more of a fan of an after election caucus choice that would not overly politicize the cabinet selection. There is something nicely symbolic about the speaker of the house being dragged to the chair. Perhaps, all cabinet ministers should be dragged kicking and screaming to their ministerial offices.

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