Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Book Notes: Wilson-Raybould on PMs and Cabinets

My daughter pointed out to me that 'Indian' In the Cabinet, the slightly awkward title of Jody Wilson-Raybound's recent memoir of her stint in federal politics, surely alludes to the late twentieth-century children's book and movie Indian in the Cupboard, about a plastic action figure that comes to life and teaches English children lessons on tolerance. But the Wilson-Raybound memoir could also be titled Cabinet Minister in the Cabinet

Wilson-Raybould is eloquent about the difficulties an Indigenous woman faces in Canadian politics, in Ottawa, in parliament, in the cabinet, and about the constant stress involved in resisting that treatment. That's an important story, and she tells it well. But there is abundant evidence in her memoir that in significant ways the prime minister and his office treated her the way they treated everyone in cabinet. That is, they saw her as a junior officer assigned to implement and carry out decisions made within the unelected cohort around the prime minister.

Most cabinet ministers are willing to live within that system, it seems. Indeed most of our political scientists and commentators are convinced it is the way parliamentary government should and must function.

Wilson-Raybound describes how she was temperamentally inclined to resist that kind of assignment by her whole upbringing in Indigenous politics, and how offended she was to find Trudeau and his team betraying their commitment that, as one of his cabinet ministers, she would be able to make real contributions to government policy. Her portrait of Trudeau -- as a prime minister like any other Canadian prime minister, almost totally uninclined to take advice from, or delegate authority to, anyone in caucus or cabinet -- is devastating.

That she was attorney-general, with a obligation to separate legal judgment from political calculation, turned her general reluctance to be treated as a flunky into a crisis and a scandal. The government's response to her charge that in the SNC Lavalin matter she was pressured to bend her legal obligations for the government's political convenience seems to have been: "Hey, we treat everyone that way, that's just how it works."

It's a devastating portrait of misgovernment that is deeply structured within the working of Canadian politics and political culture. 

It's discouraging, also, that Wilson-Raybould has so few solutions to offer to the problem of prime ministerial authoritarianism that drove her from cabinet. She talks fondly of her experience of Indigenous consensus-building (though one can think of a lot of rough politics within Indigenous circles), and she gestures broadly to an ideal of parliamentarians working together and leaving behind oppositional mindsets. Sadly, there's no sense here that this gifted and dedicated individual, now out of federal politics, believes that cabinet members, and backbenchers, or backbenchers, might ever pick up the immense latent power they have to hold leaders and prime ministers to account. No more than anyone else does she see the potential clout cabinets and caucus can wield in a parliamentary system when they are willing and aware.

There was a major cabinet shuffle yesterday. How will the new cabinet -- and those now returned to the backbenches -- deal with the problem Wilson-Raybould identifies?
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