As a rule, cabinet ministers should be able to tell you exactly what government policy is on any given subject. They all sit at the same table and they each have an obligation to support the policy they collectively decide.
When two ministers say starkly different things, then, you can understand that people tend to notice the discrepancy. The difference usually signals a major problem or controversy and that simply cannot stand. The principle of cabinet solidarity means that in public they must all sing the same song..
It’s bad enough when two ministers disagree. But when the difference is between the Premier and a minister, the matter becomes very serious. If there is one person who must know what government is doing, that person would be the first minister. If there is one person who gets to set government policy, it is the first minister. Everyone else just has an opinion.
You just can’t have a contradiction between the first minister and another minister for any time at all. cabinet government just won’t function if cabinet does not speak with one voice. If there is a discrepancy in statements, the minister will recant, admit to a mistake, apologize, and move along. If the matter is serious enough, then the minister should resign. In some instances, the minister could reasonably expect to be fired for not supporting government policy.
Cabinet solidarity and the proper functioning of cabinet government is why the contradiction last week between Kathy Dunderdale and Derrick Dalley over trade policy stood out so starkly. The Premier made it clear that government trade policy was to protect minimum processing requirements for fish in the province.
Here’s a portion of the NTV story from May 28:
We’re looking for a ‘carve-out’ on the minimum processing regulations … so they’ll be exempted, and we want access to the European market on a number of our fish lines,” she said. “And we have talked about other things outside the fishery that we’re prepared to put on the table in exchange for that. There are other things that we could give away that that loss of value wouldn’t be as great as the value we would gain by having access.”
At the same time and over the next few days, fisheries minister Dalley made it clear that everything was on the table and those minimum processing requirements could go out the window if the deal was good enough. Industry leaders made the same argument.
The Premier and her fisheries minister continued to say contradictory exclusive things for the next several days.
And then on Tuesday, the Premier told reporters that everything was back on track with the talks. Everything was on the table, minimum processing requirements included. They’d be gone in the blink of an eye of the deal was good enough.
“You have to be flexible about all of these [things],” said Dunderdale.”…there’s all kinds of gives and takes on the table.” She said there has been “fluidity” about minimum processing requirements over the years and in some areas of the fishery there are none at applied at all.
None of the reporters in the scrum asked the Premier why she had changed her position. They focused instead on the imaginary dispute with the federal government.
Dunderdale repeated several times that the provincial government was aligned with the federal position and that she could not say very much more about the issue.
The dispute with Ottawa was never the story here, even if it was anything but a complete fabrication.
The major issue raised by Dunderdale’s comments about trade policy lay in the contradiction between her statement and Dalley’s comments. Now the story is more significant given that the Premier has reversed her own position - and hence government policy - completely without explanation.
This calls into question Dunderdale’s position as Premier. She either made a false statement at the Board of Trade on government policy, an incorrect statement on policy, or stated the policy accurately and was overruled and forced to climb down.
Either way, the operation of cabinet is jeopardized and with it the fundamental operating principle of government in this province. If she got it wrong, then she has no business being in charge. Likewise, if Kathy Dunderdale was over-ruled, then we have a right to have a full explanation of how such a thing could happen.
This is not a matter of prime ministerial style. This is not a matter where fluidity is allowed. This is a basic matter of how all governments operate in a Westminster style democracy.
If the first minister isn’t in charge – as it seems in this case - the public has a right to know who is.