The prime minister is at the apex of the Canadian parliamentary government and welds immense power because his/her party is the majority in parliament. There has been growing resistance and complains about the rising concentration of power on the office of the prime minister. Canadians are also growing weary of power the office of the prime minister controls in the affairs of the government and parliament. There has been a feeling among the citizens that a prime minister should be restricted to two terms in office. This will ensure that too much power is not put in the hands of a single person (Dyck 236). Others have been advising and recommending on an overhaul of the entire government structure to avoid the prime minister to unilaterally appoint key state officers and be in a position to influence the key decisions of their offices. The concentration of power in the office of the prime minister has profoundly neutralised checks and balances in cabinet, parliament, and the public service in general. Dissecting of the official key roles of the prime minister and cabinet is critical in understanding the Canadian structure of government and possible loopholes for abuse of power.
The Prime Minister
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Naturally, every prime minister would like to have a strong grip on the affairs of the government. The office bearer provides leadership and consistency that is successfully passed on to the next coming government. The successful performance of the government on social economic affairs, both at the local and international level, is directly linked to the office of the prime minister. This has made the office bearer keen on trying to conceal any weakness in the government, lest he/she invites opposition, which makes it difficult to govern (MacDonald 267). Canadian population is highly informed, and the opposition is always keen to expose any weaknesses, real or imagined, in the prime minister’s office. This vulnerability has proved to be counter-productive and the prime minister and his followers make every effort in protecting the office from partisan attacks. It is also noteworthy to note that when the prime minister resigns, the entire cabinet resigns as a constitutional obligation (MacDonald 269). Cabinet ministers and senior government officials must work hand to protect the prime minister, and by extension, their tenure, knowing he/she bears the greatest responsibility.
Despite these realities, the prime minister is not a beneficiary of the statutory powers ministers enjoy in their portfolio. To compensate on this shortfall, the prime minister derives power from key position appointments, organization of the cabinet with its portfolio structures and powers, and general leadership of the government. Ministers and other key government appointees are aware of the extent of the prime minister’s power. For example, ministers and their deputies are appointees of and owe their promotion to the prime minister (McLachlin 274). This power of appointment for ministers has made their loyalty to the prime minister supersede all other factors, including integrity and governance. A cabinet minister cannot stand against the prime minister on an issue, knowing well he/she can be dropped from the cabinet by the prime minister. For example, there is more democratic leadership in ministries where the deputy minister can disagree with the minister on any issue that can bring a problem to the government as opposed to ministers’ relationship with the prime minister. Further, at a ministerial level, the deputy minister can refer a case to the Treasury Board on management issues or Privy Council Clerk, who double as secretary to the cabinet, in case of serious disagreement with the minister (Morton 87). A minister will be reluctant to refer a disagreement with the prime minister, since the Privy Council Clerk and Board on Treasury management are appointees of the prime minister.
The Canadian Prime Minister’s Office has over 100 officials who assist the prime ministers with their responsibilities. The chief of staff is the senior most official in the office; in the government ranking, he or she is equal in status to a deputy cabinet minister. Chief of staff in ministerial offices is ranked far much lower than the Prime Minister’s executive assistants. Both Prime Ministers and cabinet ministers’ officials are not public officials; they are political appointees (Milner 213). With such amount of staff, the Prime Minister’s office welds much power in execution of its mandate. The office of the prime minister performs many functions including advising the Premier on appointments of cabinet ministers and boards of corporations (Milner 218). It also advises the prime minister on government relations with the media and other public entities and about legislations due in the House of Commons. The office is also involved in the hiring of ministerial exempt staff. These roles of the Prime Minister’s support team, has given the office enormous power and influence and is prone to abuse by special interests.
Political versus Administration
The Chief of Staff in the prime minister’s office normally attends meetings between the prime minister and the Privy Council Clerk. It is in such meetings that the political agenda of the government is provided with concerns of the public service. This has failed to separate the political and administration agenda in the prime minister’s office. Administration issues are shared and deliberated with political considerations incorporated. It has never been easy to separate the administrative and political issues from each other. The Privy Council’s Office is supposed to be a public servants’ office. Government agendas are financed by the public office moneys and are not political programs (McCormick 48). The absence of clear political and administrative implementations programs has exposed administrative programs to be prone to forces and pressure. These conflicts have affected even the work of parliament in providing checks and control on the government especially in the use of special reserves. Reserves may play a critical role in dealing with emergency situations such as natural calamities or other relevant national funding. Such funds should not be under the control of one minister or the prime minister's office; parliament should review their use periodically (McCormick 57). The special reserve ought to be a central independent body, which has the mandate and capacity, such as the Treasury Board or Department of Finance. This body should be able to provide a guardian role to the use of this reserve fund and table a report on the House of Commons to each reserve status.
Most ministers in the Canadian parliamentary government are inexperienced on matters of administration of public affairs since one of the qualifications is winning a political election. Unlike in the United States of America where cabinet members are selected from a wide field of talents, the Canadian system is restricted by the elected members in the House of Commons. Ministers rely heavily on the services of a professional, a public servant who is supposed to carry out most of the technical administrative functions. Statutory provisions give the minister limited power in the appointment of senior officials under their ministries and management of finances (Prime Minister’s Office, News Release 13). Departmental acts lay down powers and duties ministers have to exercise. These powers of the acts are only in theory. In practise, the power and authority to run a department is entirely given to the deputy minister. Under normal circumstances, ministers are not concerned with day to day running of the administration of departments (Prime Minister’s Office, News Release 15). Having come straight from the public sectors after winning elections, they require time to master how to run a ministry. The ministers have to learn departmental policies, issues arising, challenges, and organizing their office. Ministers have divided loyalties between cabinet functions and their constituents who elected them to parliament. Ministers have also to attend cabinet meetings, prepare for parliamentary questions and answers, and attend to their political parties’ issues (Milner 216). These leave a minister with many roles to perform, rendering him/her inefficient. Ministers barely meet their deputies to understand the issues concerning their departments.
Cabinet ministers and parliamentarians consider the interests of their regions first and national interests second. Every Member of Parliament and ministers get concerned about their province, constituency, and region. Public servants are technocrats consumed with policy analysis for the entire country. These differences in approach to issues have been the most common source conflicts between ministers and professional civil servants. Many ministers have preferred the implementation of government programs in their regions without consideration of program application criteria. Ministers are always pursuing projects in their areas that will give them political mileage over their competitors (McCormick 53).
Cabinet ministers have been given the right to hire their own staff by the Privy Council Office. The staffs are known as exempt staff. The minister’s office is provided with advisors and assistants who are not public servants, but political appointees. The guidelines that govern their duty and appointment stipulate that the exempt staff cannot give direction to departmental public servants, but the staff often exert a considerable degree of influence on issues of development and administration in their departments. The power of the exempt staff is prone to misuse and has actually been abused several times (MacDonald 274). The exempt staffs have learnt the intrinsic of how the government operates and have formed networks outside the office, selling the pertinent information to special interests. The exempt staffs have helped to politicise the public service in Canada.
The prime minister together with the ministers has a substantial control over the operations of parliament. This control has allowed the government to set the agenda of the house, and execute it with relative ease. The Prime Minister uses Members of Parliament allied to his/her party to influence the business of the house. Members of Parliament, who support the prime minister’s side in the house, are promised ministerial positions, or committee posts. Those who oppose can be removed from their post or their party may bar them from running in the future (MacDonald 275). These realities have made the prime minister to have a strong control over parliament and have made Canada more of a traditional monarch instead of moving toward the presidential executive authority. The Westminster democracy evolution in Canada was a case of wrestling power from the crown and giving it to parliament, the House of Commons. Currently, the prime minister has usurped the power of the crown from parliament and the House of Commons giving the office the power to make unilateral decisions (MacDonald 276). This has limited and negated the responsibility of parliament as the guardian of accountability. The current system is to be blamed rather than party politics or individuals. Recent prime ministers have in one time or another used these powers to push for their party and personal interests.
Supreme justices are appointed exclusively by the executive under the prime minister and Governor General. The actual power to appoint the supreme justices under the Canadian constitution is held by the Governor General, the federal representative of the monarch (Milner 220). The Queen Privy Council of Canada advises the Governor General in choosing the supreme justices. In reality, the current Queen Privy Council comprises of the federal cabinet, which consult with the Governor General and the prime minister. The prime minister and the cabinet are entirely responsible for appointing the Supreme Court justices. This has been as a result of unofficial agreement where the Governor General has relinquished his power to appoint. The prime minister also has the final say of who will be recommended to the Governor General (MacDonald 223). This has given the prime minister all the power to decide who occupies any position in the Canadian Supreme Court. The office of prime minister can appoint the supreme justice they prefer.
In conclusion, the powers of the prime minister in Canada have increased gradually over time. This can be attributed to the unwritten part of the constitution of Canada also called the constitutional conventions. This gap has enabled the prime minister to put into effect particular set powers: the reserved powers. The reserved powers have propelled the authority of the prime minister high above all other arms of the government and institutions (Dyck 239). Instituting checks and balances for the office of the prime minister has and will continue to be a daunting task under the current structure.
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