Monday, February 05, 2024

History of leaders and parliaments

The Supreme Court of Canada recently held that Premier Doug Ford is entitled to keep secret the "mandate letters" he issues to his cabinet at the start of a new legislature.  I don't think I have strong views on this matter.  But political scientist Emmett Macfarlane does -- he has "reservations" about the SCC decision. 

"I have reservations" is the polite way legal people say judges are WRONG. I find I have reservations about Macfarlane's position on all this.

He points out that Justice Karakatsanis, who wrote the (unanimous) decision for the Court, reaches the conclusion:

that “the Premier’s deliberations cannot be artificially segmented from those of Cabinet. … the Letters reflect the views of the Premier on the importance of certain policy priorities, and mark the initiation of a fluid process of policy formulation within Cabinet”

.. and therefore they may become part of Cabinet's decision-making process and have some claim to confidentiality. I would have said the idea that the premier is part of Cabinet and not above it or immune to its views was close to being bedrock parliamentarianism. If a premier is CEO, and cabinet members and caucus members simply there to do his bidding, it follows that the government is absolutely unaccountable to anyone between elections.  Now obviously we have a situation approaching that in Canada, but one hopes that the Supreme Court would not declare it to be constitutionally necessary.

Macfarlane does just that, however:   

It is the Premier’s Office that sets the policy agenda....
He describes, approvingly, a situation where "staffers in the PMO/Premier's offices bring their bosses a public opinion poll and they [i.e., the premier] say “okay, we’re not doing that anymore, don’t worry, I’ll tell the cabinet next week.”  This, presumably, is what parliamentary government comes down to.

God knows, that sort of thing must happen in Canadian cabinets. But it's depressing that a leading political science professor argues cabinets, let alone caucuses, are entirely without power or agency -- or even the authority to debate policy, and that such is the right way and the real way, and it's high time the courts gave it their sanction.

In any real parliament, mandate letters would come from the caucus to the premier/prime minister and cabinet: "you hold office as long as we support you in office, and here is what we expect from you during that time." I see from the back pages of this blog I've suggested this before.  

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