29 March 2006

Harper, cabinet and the constitutional thingy

As Canadian Press reports, Prime Minister Steve Harper considers that cabinet secrecy is a constitutional thing.
"Meetings of cabinet are private. It's a constitutional thing," the prime minister argued at a mid-day availability.
Well, he's right.

To a point.

Cabinet meetings are secret, but to be perfectly accurate, the PM should have said that the contents of cabinet deliberations are secret. In other words, unless you are a member of cabinet or an official or other person specifically permitted by cabinet in the room, no one gets to know who said what to whom about what. That level of secrecy is intended to allow cabinet ministers to discuss the sensitive matters they deal with each day in the most frank way possible.

The secrecy of deliberations is intended to keep cabinet what it is: collectivly responsible for decisions. There is little if any possibility of having the government appear divided on an issue and thereby demolishing public confidence in the core of government.

And, as much as we like to speak popularly of this prime minister or another being responsible for everything, cabinet government has traditionally made the prime minister merely primus inter pares, first among equals. Certain first ministers, like say Danny Williams, can dominate a cabinet and make whatever decisions he pleases. But let Danny slip in the polls. Let his shenanigans cost the government political support and he might find himself faced with a cabinet as unified as the herd of cats Roger Grimes fronted.

An Australian politics website describes it well:
Ministers must be able to speak freely within the cabinet room. They need to be able to discuss issues and political strategy with each other in a frank and uninhibited manner. Discussions would be seriously circumscribed if ministers thought that their comments would be reported outside.
What Steve Harper is talking of is something far less than a constitutional convention.

Once upon a time, only a handful of people would know when cabinet was meeting. These days, though, most jurisdictions not under terrorist threat don't make a secret of time and place in which cabinet regularly meets. Not knowing when cabinet met, much like the secrecy of deliberations, prevented the sovereign from meddling in the affairs of the elected parliament.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, it used to be Thursdays starting at 9:00 AM. These days, I might not be able to tell you when Danny pulls the crowd together to formally record their "Yes" votes, but odds are good that news media know and the information could be readily uncovered even though it has never been a practice here to issue news releases about schedules of meetings and such.

In Ottawa, the practice since before Joe Clark has been for cabinet meetings to be publicized and for news media to be allowed to gather in controlled circumstances and intercept ministers as they leave. There is nothing to stop cabinet from organizing other meetings aside from its regular session and undoubtedly those have occurred repeatedly since Confederation (1867).

The current battle between the prime minister's office (PMO) and the parliamentary press gallery (PPG) is not the most serious fight facing anyone, but it is an unnecessary racket. Stephen Harper makes much of his commitment to accountability. If this were true then he should merely let the established practice continue.

By attempting to exert control over the PPG, and by tightly controlling what ministers may say and when they may speak, the prime minister is demonstrating that he is the antithesis of genuine accountability.

By muzzling cabinet and by attempting to manage the media Harper is himself pushing against some more substantive constitutional provisions and confirming that he looks on his new job just as did some of his predecessors.

Like Jean Chretien.

The prime minister's office in Canada has become too much like the White House over the past three decades, but without the legal counterweights to the first minister's legal ability. Gordon Robertson, formerly the most senior public servant in Canada told the National Post in 2002 that "[o]ur concentration of power is greater than in any other government with a federal cabinet system. With the lack of checks and balances, the prime minister in Canada is perhaps the most unchecked head of government among the democracies."

Robertson made those comments in the waning days of the Chretien administration, while Paul Martin was talking of a democratic deficit and before Harper and his allies, like Loyola Hearn, engineered the merger of the old Alliance party with the Progressive Conservatives. At the time, Harper though t a key to curbing the powers of the prime minister was an elected senate. That promise appears to have slipped from the Prime Minister's list of priorities.

More to the point though, Harper could demonstrate his commitment to reforming parliament, the prime minister's office and to keeping both accountable by his actions. Harper has the power simply to be accountable, rather than talk about it or consider putting it in legislation.

Genuine accountability does not come from an act of the legislature. It comes from the actions of the prime minister.

In the Great cabinet Secrecy Racket, Harper's actions on accountability and change in government speak far more loudly than his words.

It's a shame.