Tag Archives: PMO

When Cabinet Had the Power

So why don’t we see Prime Minister’s shuffled out any longer?

Ministers are there to front for policy originating in the PMO, and to take the fall when it fails or changes. In a real crisis, a prime minister may choose among several dozen scapegoats.

As in Britain, to some degree, the finance minister (chancellor of the exchequer, in their more elegant style) enjoys some slight independence and prestige. He, alone, cannot be sacked casually.

But that is a function of the national debt, not of any constitutional tradition or other nicety. The country’s credit rating and even consumer confidence require the appearance of a steady hand on the fiscal tiller. A prime minister who exchanged his finance minister every few months for someone a little more plausible and charming would pay for his whimsicality. So would we.

Yet the overall budgetary policy is set from the start, and political adjustments to it (such as stimulus runs) are dictated, from the PMO. It was Jean Chrétien, and not Paul Martin, who decided that something must be done about the deficits, even if it might involve some pain; that in the larger political scheme of things, it would pay off. It was Stephen Harper, and not Jim Flaherty, who decided to resume the “middle course.”

It was Chrétien who cleverly used Martin as his straight man: implicitly allowing him to take the blame for any cuts. That’s how things are done in a PMO-centric universe.

Party discipline in the Commons in turn assures that the prime minister’s decisions stick. A government with a majority and a half-competent chief whip is not going to entertain deviant proposals from its own backbenches, any more than from the opposition’s. That government — i.e. the prime minister and his office staff — will certainly listen, behind closed doors, to political advice from these little people who come from the boondocks. It needs eyes and ears. But they are not there to be negotiated with.

For each of them, in turn, needs the prime minister’s signature on his nomination papers, if he wants to be the party’s candidate again, before an electorate trained to vote party labels. This innovation, designed at minimum to protect the party from the embarrassment of shipping nutjobs aboard, effectively stifled the power of constituency associations. Likewise, party membership meetings can extract from their leader only what he wants to give. Their manifestos mean little during an election campaign, and nothing after.

It is against this background that we view the claims of a member of Parliament to democratic significance. As Pierre Trudeau once said, arrogantly but accurately, “When they are 50 yards from Parliament Hill they are not honourable members, they are just nobodies.” (That’s 45 metres.)

This is not how Parliament was supposed to work, or did work in the ancient past. As recently as 1968, cabinet ministers were often heavy regional warlords. They were selected by prime ministers who had no choice, and could be removed or transferred only with their own co-operation. And before the days of party leadership conventions, a prime minister had to face a cabinet which, if it took a sudden dislike, could turn him out on the street by morning.

We should pine for those days. Read Bagehot to understand what went wrong.