What is strange is the way it has been announced. It has been a central principle of the Westminster system of Parliamentary government that major government decisions are made collectively by the cabinet and that cabinet members are collectively responsible for those decisions. It has been apparent for at least two decades that the prime minister, whatever the party, has increasingly been usurping that power of decision. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence, Laurie Hawn, has now made this changed reality completely clear.
This is what he has just had to say about the prime minister’s decision (not, it is very apparent, the cabinet’s) to shift the Canadian military mission in Afghanistan from Kandahar to Kabul and to change its role to solely non-combat training:
1) On CBC News Network’s Power & Politics, Nov. 12, at 6:40 on the clip:
…The prime minister is empowered to make this kind of decision…
2) And more fully on CBC Radio One’s The House, Nov. 13, at 8:35 on the clip:
…The prime minister is the head of our government and he is empowered to make these kinds of decisions…The prime minister is within his authority and mandate to make this kind of call…
So the Canadian federal government is de facto headed by a powerful presidential figure; there is no de jure to prescribe the powers of the cabinet vis-à-vis the prime minister, just accepted convention which is most definitively not what it was. One wonders when our politicians, punditocracy, and professoriat will remark upon the constitutionally rather startling statements by Mr Hawn.
One pundit, Chantal Hebert, does make these rather telling observations on how the prime minister’s decision was presented to the public:
…Stephen Harper’s communications director, Dimitri Soudas, did the media rounds.
The sight of an unelected partisan staffer apprising Canadians of their government’s thinking on a top-of-mind defence and foreign policy issue that involves committing hundreds of Canadian men and women to a war theatre for an extra three years was unprecedented.
The power of the PMO has been in ascendancy at the expense of the federal cabinet for a number of decades, but that evolution has rarely been as blatantly obvious as over the past two weeks…
The Crown may still have ministers but they no longer are of any real account. The prime minister indeed rules the executive alone. And, with a majority government, the legislature too–unlike in the United States where the two branches of government are firmly separated.
Update: A response of mine in the “Comments”; this post was not making a partisan political point:
I was not criticizing this prime minister in particular. I was merely pointing out what an odd way in which a fundamental change in the Canadian constitution was effectively made public (significant parts of our constitution are still unwritten: neither “cabinet” nor “prime minister” appears in the Constitution Act, formerly known as the BNA).
I would point out that PM Chretien was in practise equally presidential. I have seen no indication that he took his announcement in early 2003 that the CF would return to Afstan (so they would not be available in any strength for Iraq) to cabinet, nor that shortly thereafter he took to cabinet the announcement in the House that Canada would not take part in the invasion of Iraq.
Prime ministers for some time have become ever more presidential. The present difference, for good or ill depending on how you look at it, is that until 2004 those PMs could also control Parliament.
Rather scary, regardless of the party the PM heads.
Upperdate: Version of the post is also at the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute’s 3Ds blog.