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Government by Cabinet is Back! But What Does that Really Mean?

April 21, 2016

The Saudi arms deal, a story that seems to have “legs”, as journalists say, has kicked into a higher gear with the recent admission by Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion that he signed the export permits just a few days ago. 

This deal has been highly controversial to say the least, and Dion has not helped his case by offering poor arguments in its defence.  But Dion’s admission has raised puzzles about another interesting issue, one that was heavily promoted by Prime Minister Trudeau shortly after last fall’s election, namely, that “Government by Cabinet is back”. 

What does “Government by Cabinet” mean? 

There are a number of scholarly interpretations, but I will consider what the Prime Minister himself arguably suggests it means.  

During the election campaign, Trudeau often criticized then Prime Minister Harper for being a “one-man show”.  Trudeau claimed that Canada had experienced ten years of a “lone wolf Prime Minister”, quipping that Harper could hold a Cabinet meeting with “one chair and a mirror”.  

Trudeau was probably correct on that.

Trudeau cheerfully insisted that he sees things differently, stressing that governing a country is a team sport. 

Trudeau was probably right about that, too.

Moreover, immediately after the election, in his open letter to Canadians, Prime Minister Trudeau repeatedly stressed that Canadians had elected a “team” – indeed, a team of “extraordinary Canadians”.  This would be a gender-balanced team of intelligent, dedicated and virtuous souls gathered around the Cabinet table. 

Trudeau’s letter repeatedly refers to the new government in terms of “us” and “we”, saying things like: “When we make a mistake” or “we will listen” and so on.  Trudeau closes the letter by thanking the public for putting its trust in “our team”. 

One would think that (at least) the important decisions would be group decisions—that is the essence of a team approach.  A Cabinet decision is a team decision.  No more cabinet of one lone wolf leader staring into a mirror and calling all the shots. 

The Saudi deal, regardless of what one thinks about its ethical implications, is a very important deal.  Dion has repeatedly stressed that it is crucial to the Canadian economy and to the maintenance of Canada’s reputation. 

Hence, the Saudi deal, if any deal was to be a Cabinet decision, I repeat—a team decision—would certainly qualify.  

But immediately upon admitting that he recently signed the export permits, Dion claimed that doing so was “not a cabinet decision.”  Instead, he deemed it a “minister’s decision”.  Dion claims that he made the decision alone.  The only other cabinet member involved, Dion said, was Minister of Trade Chrystia Freeland, whom he merely consulted.  Is Dion a lone wolf on this one?

If a deal of this magnitude does not qualify as a “Cabinet decision”, how much “bigger” would something have to be before the Cabinet team takes it on? 

Dion’s concept of a “minister’s decision” appears to clash with Justin Trudeau’s concept of government by a team approach.  

Curiously, Stéphane Dion's "minister's decision is much like Stephen Harper's view of decision making.  Perhaps  Stéphane and Stephen were separated at birth?

Seriously, it may be just an old game of politics.  Dion may simply be following the old rule of “protect your leader”.  Keeping the Prime Minister publically distant from the Saudi arms deal controversy could benefit the Liberal brand, the Liberal government and ultimately Dion himself. 

In sum, it seems that Trudeau’s team, his Cabinet, does not agree even upon what constitutes a Cabinet decision.  Has the ten year era of the lone wolf PM staring into a mirror and calling all the shots been replaced by a pack of lone wolves staring into mirrors independently calling their shots?  

To be fair, this is still a relatively new government and the Cabinet is a new group; arguably, they are not yet used to working with each other.  Maybe over time they will jell and conform more to the PM’s notion of a team.  Time will tell.  

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