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Monday, November 23, 2015

Our commander in chief Justin issues his orders

Justin Trudeau’s ‘mandate letters’ to the newly sworn in cabinet ministers have been generally well received. In the letters he tells the ministers to be good and to get to work on fulfilling the Liberals’ campaign pledges.

I confess I do not recall hearing of mandate letters before Trudeau’s were released on November 13. Apparently they have been used before in Ottawa and several provinces. It was news that they were being published, as Kathleen Wynne had published her mandate letters to Ontario ministers on September 24, 2014 and Jim Prentice published his to Alberta ministers shortly before. Publishing the letters seems now to be the practice. What unpublished mandate letters were in earlier years sent to ministers in Ottawa and the provincial capitals and what they said is unclear.

They have, in part, the look of a management school exercise. Mission statements and business plans and other forms of putting good intentions on paper are big in management schools. If you can put together the paper that would get you straight As in management school, you may be thought to have done well whatever actually happens in the organisation you are supposed to be running.

Trudeau’s letters are also political propaganda, something that might not get an A in a management school:

“We have promised Canadians a government that will bring real change – in both what we do and how we do it. Canadians sent a clear message in this election, and our platform offered a new, ambitious plan for a strong and growing middle class.”

But what is most striking, and should be disturbing, about the mandate letters is the presumption of Justin Trudeau issuing orders to cabinet ministers. The letters have been described in the press as his ‘marching orders.’ Their tone is grossly condescending: ‘I will expect you….’

The Prime Minister has no legal or constitutional authority to issue orders to cabinet ministers. The old idea was that a prime minister was simply a primus inter pares, a first among equals. Departmental ministers have legal authority to make regulations and take other actions, but the Prime Minister has very little legal authority himself. All he can do is advise the Governor General to do things, which, so long as he, and the ministers who serve with him, have the confidence of the House of Commons, the Governor General will do.

But the principle of cabinet government is collective responsibility. Ministers are not supposed to do things because the Prime Minister tells them to but because they have confidence in each other and see things the same way and have had a chance to talk things over in cabinet and come to a consensus. If the Prime Minister tells a minister she should do something she doesn’t think best, she may decide not to make an issue of it, if she can see how to make a case for it, or she should resign. She can’t say, either now, or in her memoirs, ‘I thought it was a bad idea, but the Prime Minister ordered me to do it.’

Of course ministers on taking office will require extensive briefing on what their responsibilities and powers are and what issues they may have to address and what procedures they should follow. The civil service will have seen to that. But ministers do not require orders from the Prime Minister to get on with their work. If Trudeau had any doubts whether any of them were up to the job, he should not have advised the Governor General to appoint them.

All this may seem rather pedantic and abstruse. But it is actually central to the much canvassed issue of the overweening power of party leaders and the Prime Minister in our politics. In assuming a presidential prerogative to issue orders to what he must consider ‘his’ ministers, Trudeau assumes supreme authority. For all his talk of ‘real change,’ less than ten days after he was sworn in he was acting on the theory that Canada is an elective dictatorship.

The publication of Trudeau’s mandate letters has been hailed as an exercise in ‘open government.’ If we are to take it that Ministers of the Crown have been outed as the Prime Minister’s minions, perhaps that it is a good thing. But if, as seems to be happening, it celebrates the Prime Minister’s supreme authority, it is not.

Whatever letters Stephen Harper wrote to cabinet ministers, they were not subject to the indignity of having their subordination publicised.

Who, we might ask, has sent Justin Trudeau a mandate letter telling him how he should conduct himself?

Friday, November 20, 2015

Justin's Inauguration

We are generally encouraged to be wary of American culture and its potential to overwhelm our own and lead us from living our own way.

It is one of the arguments for subsidising our culture and for the CBC that they may assure that we carry on as we are and not as Americans do.

But when it comes down to it, we can't seem to escape aping the Americans.

Justin Trudeau's public celebration of his swearing in on November 4 demonstrated this painfully. It had the air of a presidential inauguration.

It follows a practice that has grown up over many decades in Ottawa and the provincial capitals. Rachel Notley’s carnavelesque swearing in as Premier of Alberta in May was a new high point.

The inauguration of a President of the United States became a big public ceremony early on. Thomas Jefferson was criticised for walking to his first inauguration in 1801.

But the American President is the head of state of the United States of America. His is a very different office from that of Canada's Prime Minister. Rightly or wrongly, a President of the United States is granted some respect and even loyalty as their First Citizen and Commander in Chief. Even in the present bitter politics of the United States Barack Obama’s harshest critics show him a kind of deference because of his office.

Our Prime Minister is simply our most important public servant, who has work to do. We owe him no deference or loyalty.

He must go through certain formalities to get his authority. Those formalities involve some ceremony.

People expect ceremony to be public, but it needn’t and shouldn’t always be. The purpose of the formalities was to vest Trudeau, and the ministers, with their authority, and, most importantly, to impress upon them their responsibilities.

This cannot happen if the formalities are turned into an official public celebration. Many Canadians, myself included of course, see nothing to celebrate in Trudeau becoming Prime Minister. Quite the contrary. We accept it as our lot, and hope for the best, but we should not have to see the prestige of the state invoked to rub our discomfiture in our faces.

Liberals could and did celebrate their victory on election night. We have nothing to celebrate as Justin Trudeau becomes Prime Minister. We have only to see that he gets to work and watch him closely as he does.

In the United Kingdom, much of whose political culture we are supposed to have inherited, they still do things as they should be done. The Prime Minister is sworn in by the Queen in private. Ministers are sworn in as the ministry is put together.

They do it all in a few days. While we take weeks to change governments. It has become what the Americans call a ‘transition.’

Trudeau’s inauguration fuels misconceptions about how our government works. The next election is scheduled for October 21, 2019. The likelihood of anything upsetting the schedule or the Liberal government being overthrown before the next election is extremely remote. But legally and constitutionally it is, and must be, a possibility, and we should understand that.

Trudeau has not won a prize he gets to keep until the next tournament in four years time. He has no term. His party won a majority of the seats in the House of Commons. So long as it holds together and Liberal MPs give him their support he will remain Prime Minister.

But what if everything turns sour and a long string of by-election defeats erodes that majority? What if the party splits? Impossible you say. And practically speaking you may be right. But one of the things that makes it impossible, is just that we think it is. Because we no longer understand that it is and should be possible.

And the seemingly impregnable position that Trudeau celebrated on Wednesday is part of the domineering way of our leaders that was held against Stephen Harper and the Liberal platform promised to change.

One wonders what sort of inauguration Trudeau would have planned had he only been leading a shaky minority government. Perhaps much the same. For it serves the purpose of impressing on us that we are stuck with him.

The use of government advertising to publicise the late Conservative government’s programmes was made an issue in the election and Trudeau has promised he won’t do the same. We shall see. But the use of an official ceremony to celebrate himself and his government is an equally objectionable abuse of a government function for party purposes.

We are so used to watching American inaugurations that we expect them here and no one even remarks the impropriety.