Cabinet

In Canada's parliamentary system of government, the Cabinet is the committee of ministers that holds executive power. Cabinets are chaired by the prime minister (or in the provinces, by a premier) and ministers are most often elected politicians drawn from the party holding the most seats in the House of Commons (or the provincial legislature). Cabinets are traditionally strong, consensus-driven institutions, although some believe their influence is waning in the face of powerful prime ministers and their advisors.

How Cabinets Work

Cabinet, also known as "government-of-the-day," has been described as the "hyphen which joins [or] the buckle which fastens the legislative part of the state to the executive part of the state." It is responsible for the introduction and passage of government legislation, the execution and administration of government policies and priorities, and the finances of the government. For a body of such obvious power and potency, it has no specific constitutional or statutory basis.

In Canada the federal cabinet derives its legal powers from the Privy Council and acts in the name of the Crown. Its political capacity to govern depends upon its ability to secure and maintain majority support in the House of Commons. Legislation and regulations are given the force of law through an Order-in-Council of the Governor General, acting on the advice of the Privy Council (in practice, the Cabinet). Provincial Cabinets are known formally as executive councils and follow the federal model except in certain powers of appointment.

The federal Cabinet comprises members of Parliament invited by the prime minister to head major government departments. With the expansion of government activity, cabinets have increased in size from the original 12 to a high of 40 members (under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in September 1987). Downsizing reforms somewhat reversed this growth. (Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's Cabinet in January 1996, numbered 25 members.) However, in July 2013 Prime Minister Stephen Harper led a Cabinet of 39 members.

Cabinet Committee System

Because it has been Canadian practice to include all ministers in the Cabinet, the Cabinet has grown to an unwieldy size, and as a result a secretariat and an elaborate committee system have been developed. The secretariat for full Cabinet and its committees is provided mainly by the Privy Council Office. The Treasury Board is the only Cabinet committee created by Parliament. An unusual feature of Cabinet committees in Canada is that senior nonelected public servants participate, although they are excluded from Cabinet meetings proper.

Recent decades have witnessed various attempts to address the problem of an unwieldy Cabinet. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau relied on a number of co-ordinating committees, headed by a Policies and Priorities Committee (which he chaired), while his Conservative successors favoured an "inner Cabinet" to perform the same task of establishing government priorities and setting spending limits. Following the British model, a number of "junior ministers," also called Secretaries of State, are now appointed to assist more senior Cabinet ministers and to complete the Ministry.

How Cabinets Are Made

Choosing a Cabinet in Canada requires considerable artfulness on the part of the prime minister, who must try to ensure that it represents the country's regional, linguistic and ethnic diversity. When a victorious party fails to elect MPs in certain regions, a prime minister often resorts to the Senate to fill out the Cabinet. The number of women in Cabinet, the number of francophones, and a role for Aboriginal politicians and members of other minority groups, are all important considerations.

Cabinet-making has also traditionally been an exercise in power politics, whereby influential figures with important followings within the governing party are awarded prominent roles in the Cabinet. In this way the party leader and prime minister seeks to maintain power by sharing it, and by seeking consensus rather than confrontation with his internal party rivals.

Secrecy

All members of Cabinet are bound for life by the Privy Council oath of secrecy, which protects Cabinet deliberations and organization. Opinions publicly expressed by a minister are those of Cabinet, and ministers may disagree publicly with those opinions only after resigning from Cabinet and then must not reveal details of Cabinet discussions or documents.

The Official Secrets Act, which enjoins all Canadians, but particularly public employees, opposition critics and investigating journalists, from possessing, distributing and publicizing information deemed injurious to the state, has also been used to protect Cabinet members, who, in order to avoid embarrassment, can choose to portray themselves as privy councillors to the Crown rather than as a government responsible to the Commons—and thereby decline to answer certain questions. The secrecy surrounding Cabinet business is defended on the grounds that it is necessary for maintaining Cabinet solidarity, without which Cabinet may lose its hold over the legislature and therefore its right to govern.

Cabinet Power on the Rise

To dominate the legislature, Cabinet can rely as well on its control over the governing party. Parliamentary government is party government, and prime ministers have substantial legislative patronage at their disposal to ensure party loyalty, including appointment of Cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries and of chairmen of legislative committees. In fact, the control exerted by Cabinet over the House of Commons through the levers of party discipline has contributed, since the late 1970s, to an outcry against Cabinet power.

The traditional capacity of the legislature to bring down the government and therefore the Cabinet through a non-confidence vote appears to be losing force, largely because the Cabinet has the power, through its legislative party majority, to prevent such votes, or at worst to refuse to accept their implications or consequences. Yet the legislature's ability to hold the executive accountable underpins the whole notion of Responsible Government, upon which Canada's democracy is based.

The imbalance between the House of Commons and the Cabinet is made worse by the increasing use of discretionary powers in a wide variety of government business, allowing the executive to legislate by order-in-council or by ministerial order. When added to the Cabinet's traditional role of initiating the budget and ensuring its safe passage (see Budgetary Process) and its preparation and introduction of all major legislative proposals, this development (which began in the Trudeau years and gained strength through successive regimes) accounts for the growing belief that Cabinets have become too powerful, pushing Parliament into decline.

A large reason for such changes is the growing size and complexity of modern government. The bureaucratic infrastructure for which ministers are expected to be accountable to the Commons has become so enormous, that the idea of ministerial responsibility—ministers being personally responsible for every facet of the departments they oversee— has become discounted as unreasonable. As a result, some of that accountability is now passed on to powerful, nonelected public servants, who do not sit in the Commons and can therefore not be held responsible by its members. Any reforms designed to hold the Cabinet accountable will also have to address this related problem.

Recent reforms to alter the imbalance between Cabinet and Parliament have included increasing the capacity of Commons Committees to monitor government activity, as well as Freedom of Information laws, and the creation in 2006 of the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO), whose purpose is to examine and provide information to Parliament on government spending. In 2013 the future of the PBO was in doubt, following several years of bitter conflict with the Cabinet over the PBO's right to financial information. Whether any remedy can now stem a tide running so strongly in favour of executive domination of Parliament is doubtful, but responsible Cabinet government will not survive in Canada without such efforts.

Cabinet Power in Decline

Most recently, fears of Cabinet domination have given way to concern that the Cabinet itself has become too heavily controlled by the prime minister and his nonelected advisers (who in turn dominate Parliament). Author and scholar Donald Savoie has reported that since the Trudeau years, Cabinet is less a decision-making body and more a "focus group." Policies, priorities and spending plans are made in the Prime Minister's Office by the leader and his political staff (sometimes with the help of one or two powerful, trusted Cabinet lieutenants) and handed down at Cabinet meetings for rubber-stamping. Savoie and other critics say this trend gained momentum under the Mulroney, Chretien and Harper Cabinets. In the Harper government, many ministers and their staffs are no longer even free to speak to the media, or make public pronouncements, without having such communication cleared first by staff members in the Prime Minister's Office.

In August, 2007 Harper responded to criticism that too much power is concentrated in his hands, at the expense of Cabinet. "On very, very rare occasions would I make a decision on a policy matter—as opposed to just routine, machinery of government issues—would I make a decision on a policy matter unilaterally," he told reporters. "On all but a very small number of issues, there's been a very, very broad consensus in our Cabinet. I don't think I've ever been in a position where I've had to really force a decision through on one group of people or another."