Premier Dennis Fentie has been called dictatorial, arrogant, reckless and a lot of other things lately.
The name-calling stems from allegations he negotiated the back-door privatization of the Yukon Energy Corporation to Calgary-based ATCO while keeping the talks secret from the Crown corporation’s board of directors and his own cabinet.
So what, exactly, is wrong with that?
It’s not the privatization, or keeping the negotiations from voters.
From a political standpoint, Fentie has done something much worse.
He’s made major decisions on government policy without telling his cabinet or the departments that should be in charge.
In a British parliamentary system, that’s not supposed to happen, said public policy scholar Donald Savoie.
“It’s a faux pas for all kinds of reasons,” said Savoie, speaking from the University of Moncton where he is Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance.
“It begs the question, why do you need a board of directors to oversee the power corporation? If the board of directors is not brought in on something as crucial as the strategic direction of the corporation, then why have a board? Why go through the charade?”
Keeping cabinet in the dark strikes at the core of Canada’s democratic principles, he said.
“If you’re not the minister responsible and you make decisions without informing the minister, why have a minister? Why have a cabinet?”
Unfortunately, Fentie’s alleged actions are symptoms of a larger trend in Canadian politics—the centralization of power in the premier’s or prime minister’s inner circle.
“There’s all kinds of precedent, both at the provincial and federal level, for prime ministers and premiers to just take over a file and run with it without informing the department or the minister,” he said.
In November 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that the Quebecois were a distinct nation without telling Michael Chong, the minister of intergovernmental affairs.
Chong, an Ontario member of Parliament, resigned soon after.
“It’s something that’s being done pretty regularly and would have been unthinkable perhaps 30 years ago,” said Savoie.
Savoie is a renowned Canadian academic who focuses on the structure of government and the public service. His books, which include Governing from the Centre: The Concentration of Power in Canadian Politics and Court Government and the Collapse of Accountability in Canada and the United Kingdom explain both the forces that have led to the erosion of democratic principles in policy-making and the rise of leaders who rely only on a small circle of unelected officials to govern.
He’s won multiple awards and several honorary doctorates for studying the democratic crisis that politicians won’t tell you about.
“Starting with Trudeau, going with Mulroney, going with Martin and Harper, every prime minister has concentrated power increasingly,” he said.
A political science refresher might make this more clear.
In a parliamentary democracy, a political leader guides a party into an election. The party with the most seats has its leader appointed prime minister or premier. From his caucus (those candidates who won seats in the legislature) the prime minister or premier creates a cabinet.
The cabinet is meant to be one of the most important pieces of Canadian democracy.
“That body becomes the collective decision-making body,” said Savoie.
The cabinet is an elected body, so it represents you, and all major decisions run through it.
“In the British parliamentary form of government, there’s what’s called individuals’ ministerial accountability and collective responsibility,” he said.
This means ministers are directly responsible for their department, but it also means cabinet is collectively responsible for all major decisions.
Any major decision must be made by all the ministers together.
“Failing that, a minister should resign,” said Savoie.
Breaching the trust of cabinet can be political suicide for a minister.
“Let’s assume you have a minister responsible for the power corporation,” said Savoie. “Let’s assume that the minister initiated negotiations to sell part of all of a utility without informing the collective body known as cabinet.
“Chances are the premier or prime minister will fire him or her because the collective aspect has broken down.”
That’s something cabinet ministers are told at their first cabinet meeting, said Savoie, who’s been involved in multiple government transitions for different parties.
“You can’t go off on a tangent. You can’t hijack the agenda. You can’t commit the government to a major undertaking without informing cabinet or having a collective aspect kick in,” he said.
“The problem here, though, is who is going to fire the premier?”
There’s no set procedure for a premier who keeps secrets from his cabinet.
“But in a parliamentary system, the prime minister is primus inter pares, first among equals,” said Savoie. “He should govern himself in the same way that ministers govern themselves.”
Fentie certainly wouldn’t tolerate his actions coming from a minister.
“The problem is, there is no superior power to fire him,” he said. “But it is expected of the premier or the prime minister to play by the same rules as he imposes on the ministers.”
So who’s to blame for the growing powerlessness of cabinet—the premier or the ministers?
“They’re both to blame,” said Savoie.
“But if you were to push me to say which one should get the blame, I think it would be the latter.”
The ministers are supposed to keep the prime minister or premier in check when they’re departments are toyed with.
“The issue is not one of personality,” he said, adding the concentration of power has happened no matter who was in charge.
“Something has broken down in cabinet and the capacity of a minister to push back has not been nearly as evident as it ought to have been,” he said.
“It’s ministers not pushing back.”
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