Thursday, May 21, 2009

*The Powers of the Prime Minister*

By: William T. Stanbury
Professor Emeritus
University of British Columbia

What powers does Canada’s PM possess? Here we focus almost entirely on the PM’s legal authority (and the various inducements that go with it).

We recognize, of course, that this approach effectively understates his power because it does not take into account his other potential sources of power.[1] For example, a charismatic PM is able to obtain the allegiance and willing effort of more people than one who does not possess this characteristic.[2] We also omit the possibility that the PM’s behaviour in certain situations (e.g., crises) may increase or diminish his effective power over others depending on how the quality of his leadership skills. Nor do we consider the possibility that the source of the PM’s power (on occasion at least) _may_ stem from his expertise, e.g., he may be the best politician in his party.**

The concentration of enormous power in the person of the prime minister is a fundamental characteristic of Canada’s version of the Westminster model of government. It is not the result of the usurpation of power by the current PM or even by the last dozen PMs through a process of accretion.

*Categories of Power*

We now enumerate the most important powers exercised by Canada’s prime minister. It is useful to try to put into five categories the vast range =of powers exercised by the Prime Minister.**

a) Appointments: The PM makes the following appointments:

· Cabinet ministers – and he determines the content of the Mandate letter given to each one setting out the marching orders. He can remove a minister or “shuffle” him/her at any time,

· Members of Cabinet committees,[3]

· Judges of the superior courts, notably the SCC – see Spector (2002); Tibbetts (2002),

· Deputy Ministers (with the advice of the Clerk of the Privy Council) – so they are “tied” to the centre (PMO/PCO),

· Head of Bank of Canada (who controls the money supply – the most powerful determinant of the rate of inflation),

· Senators (who hold office until age 75),[4] <#_ftn4>

· The Governor-General and Lieutenant Governors in the 10 provinces (through ,

· Members of regulatory agencies, e.g., CRTC commissioners; members of the NEB, Canada Transportation Agency, Transportation Safety Board, etc.

· Ethics Counsellor (new legislation will see him report to Parliament, however, rather than to the PM),

· Head of the armed forces (chief of staff) and of the RCMP, Heads of Crowncorporations (including the CBC, Canada Post and many others),

· Government members and chairs of Parliamentary committees (who have a
majority on all committees but Public Accounts,

· Controls all patronage appointments (over 2,000).

b) Setting the Agenda for the Government: The Prime Minister

· Determines the contents of the Speech from the Throne which sets out the legislative agenda and establishes the “big themes” of the Government,

· Must approve Revenue budgets (proposed by the Minister of Finance) and the annual Estimates prepared by the President of the Treasury Board,

· Decides on the agenda for cabinet meetings

· Chairs cabinet meetings and “calls the consensus” (it is what he says it is),

· Controls the number and types of polls (and secrecy) done by the government (but effectively used for partisan purposes because they are kept secret until their strategic value has expired),

· Controls the Priorities and Planning Committee of Cabinet,

· Controls the legislation going to the Commons[5 (and over the order in which it will be addressed by the Commons),[6]

· Determines Ottawa’s stance on relations with foreign nations, and

· Determines Ottawa’s stance on federal-provincial relations (and particularly the approach to Quebec which is always a special case due to the separatist threat).

c) Control over Election Machinery: The PM

· Determines the timing of elections (subject to the limit of five years),

· Is leader of the party (which is largely a vehicle for running election campaigns and which has made the rules concerning leadership review and leadership races[7] ,

· Determines the subject matter and frequency of public opinion polls used to determine the timing of elections.

· Has to approve amendments to the _Canada Elections Act_, e.g., re political finances. Bill C-24 introduced on January 29, 2003 was the personal initiative of the PM who did not consult his caucus on it before it was introduced.

d) Control Over the Organization of the Federal Government:
The PM

· Determines the number and responsibilities of federal departments,[8]

· Determines the number, types, responsibilities of cabinet committees,

· Through the PCO, controls the paper flow related to the cabinet (which has been described as “the apex of power” in the federal government),

· Determines the size and division of labour in both the PMO (which serves the PM personally) and PCO (serving the cabinet but it is controlled by the PM).

e) Other Tools: The Prime Minister:

· Exercises party discipline (e.g., determining which votes are matters of confidence; PM must sign nomination papers of the party’s candidates;[9] <#_ftn9> determines which MPs become parliamentary secretaries, usually a precursor to becoming a cabinet minister),

· Commands national attention through the news media. The PM is the focus of a great deal of reportage in the press, and on radio and TV. The PM can use his position as a “bully pulpit” or he can set quite a different tone e.g., Chrétien’s statements leading up to U.S. invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003.

· Appoints the communications advisors and “spinners.” He has control over the government’s _vast_ PR/communications operation (which employs more people than are employed by all news media outlets in Ottawa).

· The PM has the single largest number of political advisors in Ottawa some 80 to 120 people in the PMO at his personal command.

· The PM is briefed on the position of cabinet ministers before cabinet meets. In general, the PM has the most elaborate information gathering and processing staff in the federal government. Information can be power.

· The PM controls the flow of patronage (to the extent desired). Parties, in practice, C.J. Friedrich (1950, p. 414) reminds us, focus on two key things: ideals (i.e., policy goals) and material objectives (i.e., the benefits of patronage).[10] It is often argued that patronage is necessary to induce people to provide the skills necessary for a party to gain and retain office in what amounts to a risky situation. Others argue that most volunteers do not expect any patronage rewards.

· The PM can spend any amount of taxpayer’s money on scientific public opinion polls (see Feschuk, 1998) and keep the results secret for sufficient time to exploit their strategic advantage. Policy actions are often guided by such polls including how to “sell” them to the public, and polls assist in choosing the date of the next general election.

Against this plenitude of powers, is the British tradition of providing leadership while practicing the virtues of self restraint and moderation. These virtues have generally been in short supply in Canadian prime ministers. The _actual_ amount of power exercised by the PM directly depends more on his (her) energy, style, values (e.g., willingness to delegate)[11] , confidence in colleagues, subordinates, etc. than what is set out in the law. The law allows the PM with a majority to be a virtual dictator between elections and gives him a major advantage in elections.

*What Are the Constraints on the PM?*

Here are the most important constraints on the powers of the PM: a) The Constitution requires that he must call a general election at least every five years. b) In theory, the official opposition is a major constraint on the power of the PM and his Government.

The reality in Ottawa is quite different for a variety of reasons: inadequate public funding of even the official opposition party; the multiplicity of opposition parties ;; the recent internal conflicts in opposition parties made them less effective as alternatives to the party in power; the enthusiasm with which opposition MPs play the media-oriented “gotcha game” instead of focusing on more substantive issues; the unwillingness of successive PMs to give private member’s bills a chance to be debated in the House; the rules limiting committees reviewing new legislation from not considering the fundamental principles on which it is founded, i.e., the principles have to be taken as given. In practice, therefore, the opposition can help to gain more visibility for scandals in the news media (but it rarely uncovers them); it can loudly condemn evidence of crass patronage; it may delay the march of the Government’s legislation on occasion – but it has no power to filibuster. It can act as “government in waiting,” but it has seldom seen as such in recent years.

a) The PM needs to maintain a majority of seats in the Commons.[12] Hence by-elections can become very important if the size of the PM’s majority is small.

b) There could be a revolt by Government MPs (particularly ministers).[13] The PM directs the affairs of the country until his party’s support fails in the Commons, or he is “over thrown” by his ministers.[14]

c) Even PMs with a majority face intra-party reviews of his leadership. For example, Jean Chrétien faced a two-part test beginning in November 2000 and ending in February 2003 (see Canadian Press, 2002). His resignation in August 2002 obviated this review which, according to all news reports, he would have done poorly (see Delacourt, 2002a).

d) When a PM loses control of the extra-parliamentary organization, he is at the mercy of the persons who do control it.[15] (For example, the supporters of Paul Martin, who was forced out as Minister of Finance in June 2002, were able to capture most of the key posts with the important organizations
within the party).

e) The rules in the constitution as interpreted by the courts may constrain the legislative initiatives of the PM. However, it may take several years for a new law to be declared _ultra vires_ by the Supreme Court of Canada.

f) If the PM were charged with a serious violation of the criminal law, he would be “toast.”

g) The premiers of the provinces – if they are able to coordinate their activities – can constrain the power of the PM where he proposes to legislate in areas of provincial jurisdiction. (Marley, 2002, calls them “the modern-day Barons of Runnymede.”) It is through successive waves of political pressure by the provinces that Canada has become one of the least centralized federations in the world. h) Death is the ultimate constraint on any person’s power. Physical or mental collapse may have a similar result. And in the odd case, family demands may result in retirement.[16]


[1] J.K. Galbraith (1983, pp. 4-6) identifies three kinds of power – condign, compensatory and conditioned. “Condign power wins submission by the ability to impose an alternative to the preferences of the individual or group that is sufficiently unpleasant or painful so that these preferences are abandoned. There is an overtone of punishment in the term, and this conveys the appropriate impression…. Compensatory
power, in contrast, wins submission by the offer of affirmative reward – by giving of something of vale to the individual so submitting… [most often, pecuniary rewards]…. Conditioned power, in contrast, is exercised by changing belief. Persuasion, education, or the social commitment to what seems natural, proper or right causes the individual to submit to the will of another or of others.”

[2] This potential source of power is particularly important when a nation’s politics is “leader-centered.” In Canada, the news media focus very heavily on party leaders – perhaps because the metaphor of politics as interpersonal conflict is so effective in attracting readers/viewers.

[3] Mr. Chrétien, PM from mid-1993 to December 2003, for example, has established few such standing committees, but has made extensive use of _ad hoc_ ones. Also, under Mr. Chrétien there were relatively few meetings of the full cabinet. On those matters in which he has less interest, Mr. Chrétien delegated considerable authority to
individual ministers and in some cases, the “final” decision was taken at the cabinet committee level.

[4] Thus the PM often puts key bagmen and political organizers on the public payroll by making them Senators. Prime Ministers have even appointed opposition party MPs to the Senate to create vacancies in the House. Of course, the Senate has been used to cushion the fall of ministers whose performance was found wanting. In December 2008, Prime Minister Harper made 18 appointments to the Senate. See _Globe and Mail,_ December 23, 2008. However, the Conservative Party still has a minority of the 105 seats in the Senate.

[5] The integration of Legislative and Executive functions in the Westminster model (in contradistinction to the doctrine of separation of powers) multiplies the PM’s power. The president of the U.S. does not have the benefit of such integration.

[6] The PM can also effectively control the flow of subordinate legislation, which is greater than that of legislation submitted to Parliament, by means of his control of the PCO which provides the secretariat for the Special Committee of Council which
makes draft regulations into law.

[7] For example, it was the Liberal Party which set a limit of $4 million on expenditures by leadership candidates for the race to succeed Jean Chrétien on November 15, 2003 and the Party determined who is eligible to vote in that contest. At the same time, the Prime Minister’s Office (June 2002) established “Guidelines” for cabinet ministers who were also leadership candidates. Bill C-24, which came
into effect on Jan. 1, 2004, changed the rules regarding donations to leadership candidates.

[8] For example, during her short tenure as PM, Kim Campbell created the Department of Canadian Heritage in 1993 which took over the responsibilities of several other departments or agencies including the Department of Communications.

[9] He must sign nomination papers of all of his party’s candidates. All party leaders have this sword over the head of their party’s candidates, but its significance is greater when the leader is also the PM. Note, however, that his party’s rules may even permit the PM to personally select candidates and thus by-pass the usual nomination
contest at the riding level.

[10] Marley (2002) argues that, “Today’s political parties are essentially irrelevant respecting both policy and patronage... They have become mere vehicles for advancing the political ambitions of a small group of individuals. That is why so few citizens participate in partisan politics on any sort of regular basis. Hence, the vulnerability of political parties to periodic take-overs by “instant members,”
usually at leadership convention or candidate nomination time and often featuring the increasingly important participation of new or non-citizens who’ve been “delivered” by dominant players in their ‘community’.”

[11] It appears that Jean Chrétien saw himself as the CEO of his Government, delegating a great deal to his Ministers. Yet he kept in his hands matters of great personal import and he was obviously willing to step in when he saw a serious threat to his Government, e.g., when Jane Stewart came under severe fire as Minister of Human Resources in February, 2000 (see Fife, 2000a).

[12] However, a PM can function with a minority government, i.e., one in which his party has a plurality of seats, but less than one-half the total number. See the discussion in Chapter 21.

[13] Columnist Jeffrey Simpson (2002, August 16) noted that Jean Chrétien and his loyalists assumed “a command-and-control, top-down organizational model in which the leader gives orders, wins victories and receives absolute loyalty from the peons [i.e., backbenchers]. It assumed [that] tribute is owed to the gods of political victory, not the rank and file.” The PM even sent an aide to lecture the caucus in this vein (see Rana, 2002). This action very likely cancelled out any benefits from the PM’s efforts to solicit policy ideas from Liberal backbenchers at about the same time (see CBC, 2002). Note that Mr. Chrétien had never done this before. Brian Mulroney, on the other hand, devoted a great deal of effort to maintaining good relations with the caucus (Laghi, 2002).

[14] At least one Liberal Party spin doctor states that Paul Martin (fired as Minister of Finance by the PM in June 2002) was leading a putsch to ouster Mr. Chrétien (see _The Hill Times_, July 29, 2002). .

[15] I am indebted to David Marley for this point.

[16] Columnist Allan Fotheringham has repeatedly claimed that it would be Aline Chrétien who determined when Jean Chrétien announced his retirement. Mr. Chrétien told the press that they agreed after the 2000 election he would not run again. See Clark, (2002c), Taber (2002b).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Quite a read! It is no wonder Canadians have such a naivety, along with inferiority perceptions. The inferiority is forced on our citizens.
The democracy as described can not possibly be representative of what is needed for todays Canada in this world. (sigh)