Government Power: Parliament or the Prime Minister's Office?

Andre Carrel
By Andre Carrel
August 21st, 2015

There is only one election issue

There can be only one issue for citizens to consider in this federal election. It is not the economy, the environment, or security. The preeminent issue in this election is governance: the process by which the nation is to be governed.

We can rely on Elections Canada to produce an accurate count of the votes cast, but under our system the seat distribution in the House of Commons will not mirror the voters’ preferences. We can bemoan this fact, and maybe someday the system will be changed to ensure that the representation of political parties in House of Commons mirrors the national vote rather than the finishing line of individual constituency races.

What distinguishes the substance of a democracy from all other forms of government, i.e. oligarchies and autocracies in all their shades and variations, is not the voting system, it is the manner in which government decisions are made and executed. In this election the question for Canadians to consider is not “Who should govern?” it is “How should we be governed?”

The crucial question concerns the role the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) will play after the new government is sworn in. The PMO has grown over fifty years from a marginal adjunct to the Privy Council Office to the point where its power and influence now eclipse that of Cabinet. The PMO’s purposes and functions are not set out in the Constitution. Information on the true cost of running the PMO is not readily available as it is ensconced in the Privy Council budget. PMO staff are not accountable to Cabinet, to the House of Commons or to any of its committees. PMO staff members are hired on a contract basis by the Prime Minister. They serve at the Prime Minister’s pleasure, and they are accountable to no one but the Prime Minister.

The PMO has not replaced the Cabinet, but its role has been expanded to the point where it usurps the responsibility of Cabinet ministers to give policy directives and strategic guidance to their ministries. When the PMO determines the objectives to be achieved through legislation, how can ministers be responsible for what is tabled in the House of Commons? Under such circumstances, what can ministers do other than rely on scripted talking points that bypass and ignore questions asked? Democratic governance is undermined not by the use of these talking points, but by the lack of ministerial accountability with respect to strategic and policy directives in the formulation of legislation.

Legislation such as the 2012 Jobs and Growth Act (Bill C-45) and the Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act (Bill C-38) was written by ministry staff with policy objectives and strategic directives issued by the PMO. These two bills amended 135 federal laws ranging from nuclear safety to judges pensions. They are typical examples of omnibus bills, legislation dealing with numerous subjects, often unrelated, to be decided in a single take-it-or-leave-it vote. The outgoing government made frequent use of omnibus bills, drafted under the auspices of the PMO, and with a time limit imposed on the House of Commons debate before calling for the vote.

The economy, the environment, and our security are weighty issues the next government will have to deal with. Increasingly hitherto national issues are now subjected to global forces. We cannot know today what and how global twists and turns will affect the nation. The clairvoyance of aspiring politicians (and of voters) is rather pretentious. Promises in regard to these or any other issues are of marginal value and credibility.

The Constitution assigns the responsibility of how the nation is to deal with future economic, environmental, or security opportunities or calamities to the House of Commons, not to the Prime Minister. The outcome of this election will determine whether or not the power to control policy and strategic direction for future legislation will rest with the PMO, or with the people we have elected to represent us in the House of Commons.

Editor’s NOTE:   This article arrived in my inbox on August 17th — I delayed publishing it to allow more time between this article and Mr. Carrel’s previous column.  Please note that this article pre-dates, and was not inspired by, the Globe and Mail editorial yesterday on the same topic:


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