by Alex Marland
Canadians have long been told that their prime ministers have too much power. Most recently the chafing control tactics used by Stephen Harper and Conservative political staff were a major factor in the electorate’s rejection of his government. Harper’s successor, Justin Trudeau, has insisted that he would be the one to reverse the trend of centralization. It is early days, but still useful to ask whether we are living a repetition of the trajectory followed by Trudeau’s predecessors: you campaign for change, you make some progress early in your term, but gradually the thorny realities of governing take hold.
Optimism abounds when a new government replaces the old regime, especially when citizens and the media get caught up in the excitement of a fresh face. Trudeau’s charisma is marketing magic, and his sunny ways are a tonic. A spirit of openness, empowerment, unity and optimism has swept through Canadian politics. Even those who cringe at the celebrity treatment of the telegenic Liberal leader ought to concede that the uplifting tone is a net positive for Canadian democracy after the acrimony of Conservative rule.
Profiting from Trudeau’s remarkable popularity, the Liberals are doing some things right. Transparency is one of their overarching commitments. They invited open applications to fill political jobs. They publicly released the mandate letters that outline the priorities set for ministers, and an updated guide for ministers was posted online. They plan to make the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and ministers’ offices subject to Access to Information legislation. Trudeau heralded the principle that ministers and not the PMO should make decisions when he announced that “government by cabinet is back.”
The PM and his ministers have been made available to the media with astonishing regularity, seemingly unafraid to engage with journalists. Media advisories are issued to announce cabinet meetings, and the PM’s itinerary is released daily. Ministers have been told to attend Liberal caucus meetings to ensure that they listen to MPs. Regular first ministers’ meetings have been restored, framed as consensus-building exercises. One can almost say that the Trudeau Liberals have branded transparency, accessibility, democracy and good government.
Much of this is more a matter of public relations than public policy – the content in the mandate letters, for instance, came straight out of the Liberals’ election platform. More substantial are commitments to strengthen Parliament by holding the political executive to account through more time for questions in Parliament, more power for the speaker, an end to abuse of omnibus bills and more autonomy for committees. The decision not to have a government leader in the Senate, who would normally be the one to take questions from senators, meant that ministers began participating in the Senate question period. Here we have to look beyond spin, given that in his first round of Senate appointments Trudeau announced that new Senator Peter Harder would be titled the government’s representative. Accordingly, Senator Harder has been sworn in as a privy councillor and will be the one who introduces government legislation.
Thus, close ties between the cabinet and the upper house persist, and are prone to increase. Nevertheless, if the striking development of ministerial participation in Senate question period lasts long enough to become a convention, it holds the potential to significantly augment the institutional relevance of the upper chamber and provide a sorely needed mechanism to hold the executive branch to account.
Improved relations with the civil service are another way in which the tone of Canadian politics has changed for the better. The demeaning treatment of some bureaucrats and their unions by Conservative staffers made for a tense workplace environment. A more spendthrift Liberal government will ease such tensions, as will the code for conduct for political staff that was inserted into the guide for ministers. Also positive is the Liberals promise to introduce arm’s-length oversight of government advertising, further reducing the partisan imprint on the bureaucratic psyche.
On the surface, then, a democratic turn has been taken. But what lurks beneath? Are there indications that suggest a different turn – that of a further institutionalization of the prime minister as chief executive officer? There is considerable evidence that this is in fact the case.
Look closely, and the presidentialization of the Canadian parliamentary system appears to be intensifying under Trudeau. This is largely an outcome of media attention focused squarely on the Prime Minister and his wife, which is encouraged by the Trudeaus and Liberal strategists. Trudeau’s likeability is a factor: sociologists have long observed that followers give the benefit of the doubt to charismatic leaders whom they shield from criticism. Image management is as calculating as it was under Harper, and adds to executive control – only it comes packaged with a friendly, progressive image.
The cabinet’s swearing-in ceremony was carefully stage-managed as though it was a presidential inauguration. Ministers walked dutifully behind the Trudeaus in unison toward Rideau Hall; afterwards, the new Prime Minister delivered a state-of-the-nation-style address with his cabinet stationed as loyal lieutenants behind him. Ministerial mandate letters and the guide for ministers firmly establish that political department heads serve at the pleasure of the Prime Minister and are expected to do his bidding. International media have magnified the perception of Canada’s prime minister as head of state, as has the removal of the Queen’s portrait from the lobby of the Pearson Building.
The centrality of the PM’s entourage was signalled when Trudeau made it known that his chief of staff and principal secretary speak on his behalf. The PMO spent months screening personnel to work in ministers’ offices. Furthermore, it is introducing “delivery units,” imported from Tony Blair’s New Labour government and used in Ontario under Premier Dalton McGuinty. This involves setting up groups within government to ensure that the Prime Minister’s key priorities are implemented. Participating departments designate a chief delivery officer who reports to the Privy Council Office’s (PCO) new unit for results and delivery. The head of the unit is a former mandarin under McGuinty, Matthew Mendelsohn, who will collaborate with the PMO. The progress of delivery will be monitored by the agenda, results and communications cabinet committee, which is chaired by the Prime Minister.
This top-down style will help ensure that key platform commitments are met. The “centre” is thus purposely bypassing the normal institutional structures designed around departmental autonomy and ministerial responsibility. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does illustrate that in a choice between controlling and decentralizing, prime ministers are prone to choose the former.
How secretive the Liberals are about the delivery units will test their commitment to open government. Transparency tends to be a principle espoused only by the opposition. The election platform commitment to “ensure that Access to Information applies to the Prime Minister’s and Ministers’ Offices” was reworded in the President of the Treasury Board’s mandate letter as “applies appropriately.” The PMO’s daily itinerary for the Prime Minister draws attention to select activities that it chooses to emphasize, leaving others out and cloaking some as simply “private meetings.”1 Trudeau’s PMO does not allow the media to set up outside the cabinet room. Rather, journalists must wait downstairs for designated ministers to speak with them, allowing other ministers to quietly escape the media’s glare.
When ministers speak, they, like their predecessors, stick to the script, but with a friendlier demeanour. The following reader comment posted in response to a February 2016 Globe and Mail story illustrates that some people have noticed that message scripting persists in the post-Harper era:
Wow! Just now watching [Finance Minister Bill] Morneau live on CBC – and quite frankly it was nothing short of bizarre and should have been very embarrassing for him. No matter what the question, he had the very same answer – our promise, our commitment to Canadians to invest in the economy, the right thing to do, yada, yada, yada, transparency, yada, yada, yada. Look, if you don’t want to answer ANY questions – OK, but then don’t appear in front of the cameras and come across like a robot with a limited vocabulary. I’ll wait for a bit of detail (i.e. where the money is going) before I make up my own mind. But the optics of this press conference were absolutely terrible.2
Overall, while ministerial access may be greater, centralized control of the message persists. It began on the campaign trail, where anyone who was off-message was privately scolded and careers were ended by careless remarks archived on social media.
Frequently convening the premiers as a group adds further to the primacy of the PM. First ministers’ conferences are the epitome of executive federalism, with the prime minister acting as the principal agent of national unity. Thus far, he has set the agenda, dictating that the premiers must address climate change and musing about unilaterally imposing a price for carbon on the provinces and territories. Pressing economic and social issues that may be of higher priority to the premiers, such as job creation and health care, are relegated to the bottom of the agenda. This is possible because the premiers, most of whom are Liberals, dare not take for granted the opportunity to meet as a group with the PM.
Permanent campaigning persists under the Liberals, but it is hidden in plain sight. While their platform promises more scrutiny of spending by Parliament, there is no transparency standard for how the PMO and government mobilize considerable resources for photo-ops and the like. The PM’s photographer is as ever-present as before – only now photos are available on his personal Instagram site as well. In lieu of advertising dollars, the Liberals are prone to increase government spending on public opinion research, including public consultations that serve a publicity function. Though political priorities are shielded under the scientific cloak of “evidence-based decision-making,” selective data can be plucked out to support ideological preferences and advance a partisan agenda under the guise of its being nonpartisan or apolitical.
To me, what is most ominous is the fusion of the brands of the prime minister, the governing party and the Government of Canada. There were many examples of this during the Conservative era, such as the directive to refer to the “Harper government.” So far the Liberals have had a free ride. Part of the problem is the culture running through the civil service that the Liberals are their natural governing masters. This came to the fore after the first Liberal cabinet meeting, when civil servants mobbed the Prime Minister and ministers, and even heckled a reporter who asked a minister difficult questions. This sense of normalcy is reflected in the Liberals effectively assuming ownership over the red and white colour scheme, which gains the perceived legitimacy of official government colours as it gradually replaces Tory blue on government websites.
Ultimately it is up to the legislative branch to keep centralized power in check, no matter who governs. But has party discipline in Parliament really lightened up now that Liberal MPs are required to vote with cabinet “only” on matters concerning the party’s election platform, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and traditional confidence issues? Ministers’ presence at caucus meetings helps to ensure that everyone communicates the same message; Liberal MPs must now check their smartphones at the door to avoid leaks that would undermine solidarity. Parliamentary committees are meant to have more independence, but parliamentary secretaries have been told to monitor them. The promise to have committee chairs elected through a secret ballot process has largely been supplanted by acclamations. If the Liberals follow their pledge to introduce a Prime Minister’s Question Period, this will further entrench prime ministerial supremacy, as would eliminating Friday sittings of the House.
What to do? Among the conclusions I draw in my book Brand Command is that the Senate needs to be shaken up so that it can act as a proper check on cabinet. The test will come as the upper house becomes dominated by Trudeau-appointed senators. It is too early to tell whether Liberal plans to reform the Senate will have lasting effects, and whether the apparent erosion of partisan loyalties among some sitting senators will hold. Liberal spinners argue that a process has been set up so that Canadians can apply to become senators, and that a team of arm’s-length advisers will make recommendations to the PM. Critics point out that it was Trudeau who appointed the advisers and established their vetting criteria, and that he alone recommends to the governor general who should be appointed.
More meaningful reform would inject democratic legitimacy into the Senate. Using a staggered electoral cycle, senators could be elected in a process agreed to at first ministers’ forums. In the meantime, little will have changed until we see Liberal-appointed senators publicly criticizing the Prime Minister. In my view, Senate reform is paramount – parallel efforts to change the system to elect MPs pale in the face of the larger problem of executive dominance. Only an arm’s-length Senate with democratic legitimacy can act as a meaningful countermeasure to executive control. Until a Canadian prime minister has to contend with such a Senate, we will have to be content with sunny ways.
1 A review of President Obama’s publicly released itineraries found considerable gaps in what was announced. See Josh Gerstein, “Obama’s Not-So-Public Schedule,” Politico, September 12, 2012, retrieved from http://www.politico.com/story/2012/09/obamas-not-so-public-schedule-081085
2 Bill Curry, “Liberals Project Deficit Triple the Size Promised During Election,” Toronto Globe and Mail, February 22, 2016, retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/liberals-to-run-18-billion-deficit-plus-billions-in-new-spending/article28833722/
Alex Marland is the author of Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control (UBC Press, 2016). He is an associate professor of political science and associate dean at Memorial University of Newfoundland.