July 7, 2012
Rag-doll cabinets
Should the prime minister include himself in his next cabinet shuffle? He won't of course, but should he? After all, he's a cabinet minister. Why is the question never asked?

Because it is ridiculous. Under our current system of cabinet government, which has "evolved" well beyond what Walter Bagehot de-scribed in his classic work on The English Constitution (1867) - but in the direction he partly foresaw - cabinet ministers are utterly dispensable. We have, in Canada as in the United Kingdom, executive power now entirely centralized in the Prime Minister's Office.

The various pundits who have questioned Stephen Harper's in-tent, to postpone any major cabinet shuffle until the midpoint of his term (next year), seem to me imperfectly to grasp this hard reality. It is his call, and no one else's, and the only real pressure they can bring is by humiliating one of his ministers to the degree that they succeeded in doing with salt-of-the-Earth Bev Oda, so that she became a political liability to be dumped right away.

Or perhaps they are wiser than I think. They realize that cabinet government is such an empty shell, that ministers should be shuffled for the optics. The government has performed poorly in public opinion polls, therefore, it must paint new smiley faces on its placard.

But the next election is some distance away. Harper, who has in the past proved more astute in political judgment than they, probably knows that a big show of chopping and changing will not help his numbers. His electoral mystique depends on "reliability." He must never look like he is panicking.

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 some-thing 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 boon-docks. 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, de-signed 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 re-moved 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.

David Warren