Paul Martin is planning a mass swearing-in ceremony next Friday that would give as many as 30 backbenchers access to some cabinet secrets as members of the Privy Council, sources say.
In addition to a major overhaul of cabinet that will be unveiled at the same time, Mr. Martin plans to strengthen the function of the parliamentary secretaries, backbench MPs whose job is representing individual ministers in the Commons and committees. That role will include privy-councillor status.
Sources said the discussions on the parliamentary secretaries' responsibilities are going on inside Mr. Martin's transition team, and the plan is not yet final. However, it is intended as a way to consolidate the more prominent role for the backbenchers, and allow them access to cabinet papers when it is deemed appropriate.
Traditionally, the responsibilities of parliamentary secretaries have varied according to their relationship with the minister they assist, and they were usually shuffled out of the jobs every year or two.
Now, Mr. Martin wants to give them a more formalized role with a clear mandate to be the liaison between the upper levels of government and the caucus and parliamentary committees, sources familiar with the discussions said. And they will be retained or dropped based on their performance, like cabinet ministers.
Usually only cabinet ministers are made privy councillors, although the privilege has occasionally been extended to private citizens as an honour, or to allow non-government MPs to receive secret cabinet information.
Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney made then-NDP leader Audrey McLaughlin a privy councillor in 1991 when opposition leaders were briefed on that year's war in the Persian Gulf.
In addition to new responsibilities, parliamentary secretaries will be given more stringent ethical guidelines in a new code of conduct for public office holders that Mr. Martin has requested.
The move will take place as Mr. Martin forms a cabinet from the ranks of MPs who supported him, many vocally, as he sought to take over the party from Jean Chrétien. In addition to his cabinet, he can now offer more prestigious second-tier positions to 25 to 30 MPs.
He is already planning a broad sweep that will relegate many members of Mr. Chrétien's cabinet to the back bench. But Natural Resources Minister Herb Dhaliwal, a Chrétien loyalist who announced yesterday that he's quitting politics and will not run for re-election, cautioned Mr. Martin against a wholesale purge of cabinet ministers appointed by his predecessor.
"[In business]people don't change all of their senior executives in one swoop," he said, adding, "I don't think anybody should distance themselves from the record of the last 10 years. I think it would be a mistake . . . because I think we've got a great record out there."
He was the second minister, after Finance Minister John Manley, to bow out before Mr. Martin takes over on Dec. 12.
Enhancing the role of parliamentary secretaries is also part of Mr. Martin's pledge to include more parliamentarians in decision-making, and eliminate what he has called a "democratic deficit."
Yesterday, the Liberal caucus was claiming a new feeling of empowerment as it met to brainstorm on priorities for Mr. Martin's first Throne Speech, which will outline his government's program.
Two of the top policy advisers on Mr. Martin's transition team, Peter Nicholson and Paul Corriveau, warned them that because of fiscal realities, they will have to temper their enthusiasm for bringing in new programs and spending.
"It's about making choices and it's about being patient," the MPs were warned, as the advisers told them money would be tight, and that the government would have to make difficult decisions.
The MPs also heard polling results from Mr. Martin's senior strategist, David Herle, that the Liberals lead in all provinces but Alberta.
With reports from Steven Chase and Drew Fagan