JWR/SNC and Canadian government tropes

There are a lot of simple narratives about Canadian government out there.

Recent events highlight why things tend to be more complicated than our tropes would have it.

Here a few that came under stress in the past few weeks:

1) The Prime Minister’s Office has dictatorial authority over Cabinet and government.

A PMO that had absolute authority over Cabinet wouldn’t have had to lean on a minister to get what it wanted. Strong ministers can push back, particularly when the law gives them unique responsibilities.

Ah, but didn’t PMO shuffle the minister out? Doesn’t that prove that PMO is all powerful? Well, no. If you have to shuffle a minister out to get what you want, then you’re using raw prerogative power to compensate for a shortfall in influence and authority. Also, the PMO never did get what it wanted.

2) Majority governments can only be held to account by voters at election time.

Thanks to media reports and sustained opposition critiques, the prime minister lost one of his closest advisors, he has apologized to his former justice minister, and his deputy minister appeared before a parliamentary committee to answer various allegations of improper conduct. The governing party has also taken a hit in the polls.

This is what accountability looks like between elections.

3) Parliamentary committees are pointless partisan theatre during majority parliaments.

This past week a parliamentary committee with a majority Liberal membership saw the current Minister of Justice / Attorney General and the Clerk of the Privy Council testify. The Clerk’s testimony, in particular, shed significant light on the events in question and about the workings of the government in recent months. This coming week, the previous Attorney General will testify before the committee.

Although this is a rare occurrence prompted by a particular set of circumstances, the committee is nonetheless performing an accountability function, despite the governing party’s majority.

Parliament does what it’s supposed to do when the need arises.

4) Caucus is powerless over the party leader.

We’re unlikely to know exactly what exactly backbench Liberal MPs are telling the Prime Minister behind closed doors. But various social media posts and reports are giving us a hint that members are unhappy and pushing the government to sort things out. A few of them are probably doing this out of solidarity with the previous Attorney General. Some are probably voicing ethical concerns. And a good number of them are probably worried about re-election. Whatever their motives, it appears that the caucus is getting a response from the government.


Besides calling these tropes into question, what else can these recent events tell us about Canadian government?

a) Cabinet government with strong ministers can create headaches for the Centre, which can help explain why centralization is an attractive option.

b) Principled ministerial resignations can have a significant impact. Cabinet shuffles, too.

c) We need a better delineation of solicitor-client privilege as it pertains to the Attorney General and Cabinet, the relationship between the Attorney General and the prime minister’s ultimate responsibility for all affairs of government, and the conventions that surround the Attorney General’s independent functions.

d) Ministers and senior civil servants are human. They can have strong views, they clash, they can push back when they feel their well-meaning decisions are being mischaracterized or feel they’re being wronged. The study of government must necessarily take human virtues and vices into account.

What am I missing?

If you haven’t already, read Ian Brodie’s book, which reinforces most of these points: https://www.mqup.ca/at-the-centre-of-government-products-9780773552906.php



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