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By Dr. Steven Tomlins, Senior Researcher, Institute on Governance
It matters not what we say, gentlemen, so long as we all say the same thing.
– British Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, referring to cabinet solidarity
The status of the prime minister has been described as primus inter pares: Latin for “first among equals.” This concept defines not only the prime minister’s relationship with Cabinet, but also, in a sense, his or her relationship with the public in our modern democratic society.
– Government of Canada
All are equal, but some are more equal than others.
– George Orwell, Animal Farm
The SNC-Lavalin affair has raised many questions pertaining to ethics in government; it has generated plenty of press coverage and lots of social media explanations and musings on how government works, how accountability is rendered, and where allegiances are supposed to lie. There are many angles to this story that could be unpacked, but one of the most interesting is in how events are interpreted by the public at large based on how they see the roles of the Prime Minister, cabinet ministers, caucus members, and political parties. Those who view political parties as ‘from the top down’ and centred around leadership (dedicated to solidarity/cohesion) tend to find fault with the very notion of public dissent, while those who consider political parties to be ‘from the ground up’ and centred around a political philosophy (dedicated to values/ideology) tend to view dissenters as principled and democratic. This is not a new discussion, but it is one that has been brought out by the SNC-Lavalin affair and it is worth revisiting.
In 1679, King Charles II used his royal prerogative to dissolve parliament twice in order to stop the Exclusion Bill from passing (which dealt with excluding his heir from becoming king because he was Roman Catholic). Public opinion was spilt. His supporters came to be known as ‘Tories.’ Those who petitioned the King to call a new Parliament and allow the bill to pass came to be known as ‘Whigs’. These two parties evolved over the centuries, and in Canada the Tories evolved into the Conservative Party and the Whigs into the Liberal Party.
The term ‘Prime Minister’ was popularized in the United Kingdom during the 18th century in reference to Whig politician Sir Robert Walpole, who made decisions on behalf of the King. Walpole developed cabinet solidarity, and all policy decisions made by the cabinet had to be publicly defended or the dissenting ministers were forced to resign. The term ‘Prime Minister’ was initially applied as mockery, to be contrasted with the liberty of the people to make their own decisions, but eventually it became an honorific title, and it has come to mean, in the Canadian context and elsewhere, primus inter pares, or “first among equals.”
Canada’s original constitution (the BNA Act, or Constitution 1867) made no references to a Prime Minister, and the Constitution Act, 1982, only refers to the Prime Minister in passing (Section 35.1). The rules governing the role of the Prime Minister are conventional: they have no basis in our written constitution. The Prime Minister selects the Governor General, who represents the Queen, and in turn the Governor General selects the Prime Minister. In practice the Governor General selects the party leader whose party has the most seats in Parliament for the role, as that individual is considered most likely to command the confidence of the House. The Prime Minister’s powers derive from tradition/custom, and include: overseeing the Prime Minister’s Office; appointing cabinet ministers, senators, judges (Supreme Court and federal), ministers, boards; and advising the Governor General of Canada on key matters like dissolution and prorogation, in addition to acting as the head of state for the government and country on the international stage.
The Prime Minister is not directly elected by the general public; the public votes for MPs, although in practice many people vote for the individual MP based on that individual’s party affiliation, and by extension based on the leader of said party, hoping that party wins the most seats and its leader is thus appointed Prime Minister. Party leaders have the final say on who gets nominated under their party’s banner and they can intervene in candidate selections in ridings, although they might abstain from doing so because the optics of interference in local ridings brings negative media attention. Party discipline is strong in Canada; party discipline is required on most issues and some parliamentary votes, such as the Budget, are considered motions of confidence, whereby all elected members of a party are expected to vote uniformly, and a member, known as the ‘Whip’, rounds up and metaphorically ‘whips’ party members into conformity. Individuals can express their disagreement on issues during weekly caucus meetings, but they are expected to vote along party lines and maintain a public image of party cohesion. In contrast, in the United Kingdom, Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May has recently faced no confidence votes and open dissent from members of her own party, and in Australia it is becoming commonplace for caucus members to vote the Prime Minister of their own party out of office. The capacity for a caucus to vote the Prime Minister out of office depends on the party’s constitution.
Opinions on the conduct of the Prime Minister and ministers in the fallout of the SNC-Lavalin affair, specifically in what was politically ‘correct’, tend to come from these two lenses. From the perspective of Lens #1, Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott should not have publicly admitted a loss of confidence in their party leader but instead shown loyalty to the Prime Minister; they should have towed the party line in consensus with the Prime Minister outside of caucus so as to project a united front; they should have left the Liberal party once their opinions were in contrast to, or they lost confidence in, the leader; and they were rightfully expelled from caucus and the Liberal party. This seems to be the perspective of the Prime Minster and many federal Liberals who repeatedly told the media that they were “not team players.”
From the perspective of Lens #2, Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott remained loyal to Liberal values and principles; the party is a collection of individuals where diversity of opinion should be welcomed and valued; the party should not be defined by one person (the Prime Minister); party members should be able to question the Prime Minister and should not be expected to defend what they consider to be unethical behaviour; and they were elected as Liberals and still consider themselves Liberals, in terms of allegiance to, or belief in, the ideology behind the party. This seems to be the perspective of Jody Wilson-Raybould, Jane Philpott, and their supporters, with the former telling MacLean’s, “I still can’t understand why I’m ejected from a party whose values and principles I uphold.”
Both of these perspectives are true to different degrees, but in practice Lens #1 seems to be closer to how parties operate, whereas Lens #2 may be more idealistic than realistic, but perhaps an ideological goal worth striving toward.
It is worth looking at these lenses as they relate to the Institute on Governance’s five key governance principles of 1) legitimacy and voice; 2) direction and purpose; 3) effective performance; 4) accountability and transparency; and, 5) fairness and ethical behaviour.
1) Legitimacy and Voice: From the perspective of Lens #1, legitimacy comes from a party
being elected through party representatives with the well-known convention that people
tend to vote upon party lines for a leader (the Prime Minister – the public face and voice of the party). From the perspective of Lens # 2, legitimacy comes from being elected based on an individual’s values and principles and the party consists of many voices.
2) Direction and Purpose: From the perspective of Lens #1, direction and purpose comes from the top down, and a leader steers the ship toward goals derived in part from a party’s constitution. From the perspective of Lens # 2, direction and purpose come from member consensus on issues following debate and discussion.
3) Effective Performance: From the perspective of Lens #1, effective performance means obtaining outcomes under the direction of a strong leader. From the perspective of Lens #2, effective performance comes from obtaining outcomes that were agreed upon through discourse and democratic consensus amongst party members.
4) Accountability and Transparency: From the perspective of Lens #1, public accountability falls upon the leader and elected members of the governing party are accountable to the Prime Minister; transparency has to be limited to avoid the citizenry seeing any hint of fracturing within the party. From the perspective of Lens # 2, public accountability is to the voters and the Prime Minister is accountable to elected members of the governing party; transparency sheds light on the social goods of debate, discussion, and diversity of opinion.
5) Fairness and Ethical Behaviour: From the perspective of Lens #1, fairness and ethical behaviour are judged mainly by the leader, and members should follow their lead. From the perspective of Lens #2, fairness and ethical behaviour come from party ideology, principles, and values, and are the prerogative of each individual elected to office.
Neither of these two perspectives is entirely right or wrong, but they do affect how people perceive responsibility for the principles of good governance and are worth contemplation in terms of how each of us conceives the actors that govern the citizenry.
From the divine right of kings to the primus inter pares (first among equals), our inherited parliamentary system is still evolving and many of its ‘rules’ pertaining to relations between political party members (caucus, elected, and unelected) and party leadership are by convention. The SNC-Lavalin Affair has raised to the forefront many issues, and, as I have argued, has brought to light two quite distinct opinions on the ‘correct’ or ‘proper’ way to behave as both a party member and a Member of Parliament. These pertain to relations between members and their leaders, and the perception one has of the role of political parties in general. These perceptions shape how dissent is judged, and explain why some feel that a dissenter no longer belongs to a party, while a dissenter may feel like a whistleblower demonstrating loyalty to the party. As we look toward the next federal election it is worth considering who or what you will be voting for to act as your representative in Parliament: will you be voting for an individual who comes with a party; a party that comes with an individual; or a bit from both Lens #1 and Lens #2?
 First Among Equals: The Prime Minister in Canadian Life and Politics, https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/primeministers/index-e.html, Government of Canada (archived), April 23, 2001.
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