With the dust settling on Monday’s Cabinet shuffle it is time to dust off some Latin to understand better its significance and what it reveals.
“Primus inter pares” is a Latin nostrum meaning “first among equals”. It is a stalwart phrase for describing the role and influence of prime ministers in their cabinets. The ministerial shuffle and populating of cabinet committees show that while there is one ‘first’ and probably a few ‘seconds,’ there are many more ‘thirds’ gathered around the Centre Block table. And with that, not just ministerial responsibility and accountability to Parliament becomes more opaque but consensus, the mystical tie that binds all cabinets, increasingly flows from the top down.
Cabinet is about both politics and governance. A seat at the cabinet table certainly shows you matter. But there are, in fact, many cabinet tables and which seat at which table matters most of all.
With a cabinet so large and administratively unwieldy, its most important public function as a group may already have occurred with the family photo at Rideau Hall. When it does meet in private session it will have one main governance role: to ratify decisions of cabinet committees. For this is where the real work is done. And in their makeup is where government priorities and importance are first being revealed to Canadians.
Cabinet committees are the actual substantive decision-making bodies in government. They have their own Privy Council Office ‘minders’ in the form of deputy or associate secretaries. Detailed memorandums to cabinet (MCs in the parlance) are written and negotiated between and among departmental officials to give ministers the information, data, options, and recommendations, before being signed off by the sponsoring minister or ministers. Ratified, they form the basis of final cabinet approval in the form of records of decisions.
Priorities and planning, the only committee chaired by the prime minister, is also clearly ‘primus inter pares’. It is the inner sanctum of sanctums, for all major decisions are taken here. According to the government, it “provides strategic direction on government priorities and expenditure management, ratifies committee recommendations and approves appointments.” P&P ministers are chosen for the portfolios they hold, the regions they represent, or the political heft they bring. No surprise to see Finance Minister Jim Flaherty on it or, for that matter, Justice Minister Peter MacKay. New Heritage Minister Shelly Glover makes it on as Manitoba’s representative as does Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt from New Brunswick. Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenny makes it in on all three fronts.
But newly-appointed Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq does not. In fact, she doesn’t even make it onto her own cabinet committee, the one dealing with environment and sustainable development issues. The newly-named cabinet committee on economic Prosperity, having dropped the words “Sustainable Growth” from its pre-shuffle title, still deals with environment and sustainable development, just not with the participation of the minister of the environment. Not only bizarre, this defies the consensus nature of cabinet decision-making.
Beneath consensus lies conflict. Much of it is institutional, motivated by official departmental perspectives. But it is also necessary. For within the process of forging consensus, issues are discussed, information is provided, and thinking takes place. It is, to quote another Latin phrase, the ‘sine qua non’ – or essential nature - of deliberative decision-making. It can be ad hoc and messy, sure, but it also is the basis of achieving consensus and good decisions. Consensus is not unanimity; rather, it is the absence of disagreement. Knowing you had your day in court, so to speak, makes ministers more likely to accept the outcome and, from there, so too the country at large. The absence of conflict is, frankly, no guarantor of the absence of disagreement.
Few matters brook conflict or tax consensus today as much as reconciling the environment with the economy. But doing so is a long-standing precept of achieving sustainable development. It is deliberately tough; yet, the benefits are real.
Ms. Aglukkaq has something unique to contribute to environmental, energy, and economic policy in Canada with her Inuit background and Northern perspective. In cabinet, she will have to content herself with doing so via the social policy committee only, for she is nowhere to be found on P&P either. If she was, she might find that, like her predecessors, P&P really stood for “Pandas and Parks”.
David McLaughlin was deputy minister of policy and planning and secretary to the cabinet committee on policy and priorities in New Brunswick