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Ottawa’s accountability problems start at the top, in the PMO (2)

Conservative leader Stephen Harper makes a campaign stop in Drummondville, Que., on Monday, August 24, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Last week, we wrote about how the Prime Minister's Office has become far too powerful. Where once it was a relatively small office that handled the prime minister's correspondence, helped him keep abreast of government doings and served as a link between the leader and his party, it has morphed into a 90-person juggernaut of political strategists, "issues managers" and party enforcers who exercise strict control over cabinet, the houses of Parliament and the bureaucracy.

As a result, our government has become dangerously unbalanced. The PMO operates with an imperiousness that has grown with each succeeding government in the past 40 years. A generation ago, Pierre Trudeau said of MPs, "Fifty yards from Parliament Hill they are no longer honourable members. They are just nobodies." These days, they're nobodies on the Hill, too.

In 2015, MPs are treated as minions of the party, cabinet ministers as devices for transmitting talking points, and parliamentary committees as rubber stamps.

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The public was given an unprecedented glimpse behind the palace doors this month, thanks to the court testimony of Nigel Wright, a former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in the trial of Senator Mike Duffy. It wasn't uplifting.

So how do we rebalance our system? The first thing to do is to remember how it's supposed to work. Here is the Green Party platform, stating the obvious: "The cornerstone principles of our system of government are that members of Parliament represent their constituents, not their political party; that all MPs are equal, with the prime minister first among equals; that the prime minister reports to Parliament, not the other way around; and that Parliament controls the public purse."

The Greens say the solution is to cut the budget of the PMO by 50 per cent. But that misplaces where the PMO's power comes from; namely, the prime minister's ability to hire and fire cabinet ministers and committee members, as well as his or her power to approve the nomination of everyone who runs for the party (a power wielded by almost every party leader). You could shrink the PMO down to a quarter its current size and the prime minister would still be endowed with an iron fist.

In reality, the PMO gains strength by weakening the institutions around it. So the better fix is to empower its competitors – the public service and above all the elected members of Parliament. The Gomery commission on the Liberal sponsorship scandal suggested ways of inoculating against an overbearing PMO in its follow-up report in 2006, as did a report in 2012 by the Commons standing committee on government operations and estimates on reasserting Parliament's "power of the purse."

Among other recommendations, the Gomery commission said deputy ministers should serve for at least three years after being appointed by the prime minister, freeing them up to speak their minds. Another Gomery recommendation, one that is part of both the Green and Liberal platforms, is to substantially increase funding for parliamentary committees so that they are better equipped to examine legislation. The Liberals say they would also let Parliament elect committee chairs by secret ballot, further insulating them from the reach of the PMO.

All three opposition parties say they would give more authority and independence to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, a position created by the Harper government in 2006. They should go further and commit themselves to the reforms proposed by the standing committee on government operations and estimates to make the budget process more transparent. The adoption of the most basic of the committee's proposals – eliminate or modify the deeming rule, which means that a committee that fails to meet its deadline to report on the budget will have been deemed to do so; release the estimates in a more timely fashion so they better reflect what's in the actual budget; use the same budgetary methods in the estimates and budgets; and give MPs adequate time to study realistic numbers – could dramatically realign Ottawa's power structure.

That leaves the issue of the prime minister's control over MPs as leader of their party. The most serious recent attempt to scale this back came from a Conservative MP, Michael Chong. His bill to rebalance power inside party caucuses was adopted in a heavily amended form this spring, but it still opens the door to reform. When the next Parliament is formed, every party caucus will get to vote on whether or not to adopt rules giving its MPs the power to trigger a leadership review.

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It will be interesting to see which MPs are willing to test their leaders' omnipotence. Those that do might find they can vote more freely in the House of Commons. Mr. Chong's bill has the potential to weaken the prime minister's grip on Parliament, and it is evidence that the PMO is not invincible. All it takes are MPs and parties willing to show some spine.

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