David McLaughlin was cabinet secretary and clerk of the Executive Council in the province of Manitoba from 2020 to 2021.
When the House of Commons returns to session on Nov. 22, members of Parliament will need to be fully vaccinated unless they have a medical exemption. This has caused some consternation around the Conservative Party of Canada’s caucus – the party has yet to disclose its MPs’ vaccination statuses, and how many of them remain unvaccinated.
But these concerns miss the mark. It matters not a hill of beans to the actual public health of Canadians whether elected members of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition are vaxxed to the max or not. They do not, after all, make public-health policy.
Cabinet, on the other hand, is a different matter. It is here, at the apex of our system of responsible government, that the following question should be posed to every federal and provincial minister in every cabinet across this country: Are you vaccinated or not?
A minority of unvaccinated government caucus members poses minimal risk to public-health policy-making. It is exponentially greater if a misinformed but committed opponent to vaccination is sitting at the cabinet table.
Cabinet is the highest executive decision-making forum in government – caucus, meanwhile, is essentially a political focus group for a premier or prime minister. Caucus can be consulted on any matter of government policy, but its entreaties can ultimately be ignored. They are not members of the executive branch. But ministers in cabinet cannot be so easily discounted. They are directly engaged in public-health policy determination, unlike members of Parliament or members of a Legislative Assembly.
An opponent of vaccinations in caucus carries some weight, but is always generously outnumbered in the room. But such a person in cabinet would be less so. Their proximity to confidential decision-making information in the form of cabinet documentation and access to public health officials and other government experts gives them a privileged perch to create mischief at best, and radically inadequate public health policy at worst.
Strident anti-vaxxers in cabinet can bring an insidious bearing to decision-making. If they cannot halt new public-health orders outright, they can certainly water them down by voicing ill-informed views where decisions are made or ratified. In the search for consensus at this most privileged of tables, those ministers can create a dynamic that delays needed action.
A vociferous opponent of vaccination will just as likely oppose any and all public-health restrictions, period. Residing in an echo chamber of a broad array of classic conspiracy theories, these destabilizing elements have the ability to influence many aspects of government responses to COVID-19, given that such edicts have fundamentally reshaped all human interactions during the pandemic.
This poses a threat to that most important element and most ideal outcome of cabinet-based decision-making: consensus.
At those cabinet tables, consensus is most properly understood as “the absence of active disagreement” – a delightfully ambiguous construction that serves cabinet government well. In such styles of government, consensus is effectively stated by the premier or prime minister – who, as chair of cabinet, are charged with summing up the opinions and views and making a determination on behalf of the government as a whole. In short, ministers get a vote; the party leader gets a veto. Or, put more starkly: Cabinet consensus is whatever the premier or prime minister says it is.
This is a powerful instrument in the hands of a determined leader. Wielded skilfully, it enables divergent opinions to coalesce around a common cause, at least for a given moment. And that is often success enough, in the uncertain arc of any government’s life.
However, a premier or prime minister who repeatedly ignores opposing views from cabinet colleagues will encounter other reckonings over time. It takes a strong, canny leader to deflect this direct challenge to majority opinion amongst other ministers or in extremis to a premier’s very leadership. This is particularly difficult when a minister dissents because of views that run counter to public-health recommendations.
Our public battle against COVID-19 has actually been most consequentially fought in private, around cabinet tables. The quest to secure this bedrock of responsible government – consensus – has been the strongest dynamic shaping our governments’ responses to this pernicious and persistent virus. As the pandemic has ground on, cabinet consensus in every government across the country on public-health action have been set and reset more than any citizen knows.
But without cabinet consensus, there is no cabinet government. Allowing any anti-vaxxers to sit at the cabinet table presents a clear conflict of interest when it comes to acting in the public good against COVID-19. It is cabinet, not caucus, where vaccine mandates most matter.
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