Nova Scotia·Opinion

Nova Scotia's cabinet — how it works and common misconceptions

The cabinet is supposedly the pinnacle of government, but how much do you really know about how it works?

Cabinet secrecy is being abused and giving politicians a free pass from accountability, says Graham Steele

Premier Stephen McNeil convenes his first cabinet meeting after winning the Nova Scotia provincial election in October 2013. (The Canadian Press)

The cabinet is supposedly the pinnacle of government, but how much do you really know about how it works?

Practically nothing, probably, because a blanket of secrecy is thrown over it and fastened tight.

When I became a minister, I swore an oath not to reveal cabinet deliberations. 

That oath lasts for life. But I think I can tell you a few secrets about how the place actually works.

Undisputed boss

One thing everybody knows: the premier is the undisputed boss of cabinet. 

The premier decides who's in, who's out, when they meet and what they talk about. 

Because of all the secrecy, it's hard to compare the style of different premiers.

The major difference between premiers appears to be the extent to which they use their cabinet as a political sounding board. Gordon Campbell, the former B.C. premier, apparently could keep his cabinet talking all day and into the evening.

Most premiers don't use their cabinet that way. Their real advisers are elsewhere. So when the formal cabinet business is done, which usually takes a couple of hours, the meeting is over and everyone disperses.

Common misconception

The most common misconception about the cabinet is that it's the political heart of government.

It's not. Rather, cabinet is the legal heart of government — a big difference.

Stuff goes to cabinet if cabinet approval is required by law. Otherwise, it's doesn't get on the agenda.

In the context of a sprawling, $10 billion government, covering a thousand-plus program areas, there's a tremendous amount of routine business passing over the cabinet table — regulations, agreements, land transactions, appointments. 

All that routine business is there to be ratified, not debated in any serious way.

That's why most political issues don't get decided around the cabinet table, unless the premier specifically takes it there.

For example, most of this month's hot political issues — seniors' pharmacare, the Yarmouth ferry, the Bluenose II —had no reason to go to cabinet and probably didn't.

Where do they meet?

Cabinet meets once a week, starting at 8:30 a.m. on Thursdays. There's no special reason for that time and day. It's tradition.

For a long time, cabinet met in a room on the ground floor of Province House. It's now called the Veterans' Room. 

In 2001, cabinet moved over to the ground floor of One Government Place, across the street from the legislature's back door.

The McNeil government has moved the cabinet room again, this time to larger quarters on the sixth floor of One Government Place. It's one floor below the real political heart of government — the offices of the premier and his senior advisers.

Who is in the room?

Cabinet meetings are attended by the premier and ministers, of course, along with senior staff from the premier's office.

There are also two civil servants in the room: the clerk of the executive council and the secretary of the executive council.

The clerk is usually also the deputy minister to the premier, which makes him or her the most senior civil servant.

Everybody else waits in a lounge outside. Nobody else goes into the cabinet room except by invitation, and only for a specific item if ministers need more information.

Cabinet secrecy

As I've mentioned, cabinet is blanketed in secrecy.

Ministers swear an oath to keep deliberations secret. They can't reveal any documents; they can't talk about what happened; they're not even supposed to talk about what's on the agenda.

Even when there's a breach of cabinet confidentiality, like when papers are stolen from a minister's vehicle, no one will talk about it.

The justification for cabinet secrecy is that the cabinet should be able to receive free and frank advice from civil servants, and have free and frank debate. That's legitimate.

But the net of cabinet confidentiality, which should have a narrow scope, has been cast far too wide.

Every government proclaims its openness, but they're all pulling your leg. Behind the scenes, they do everything they can to keep sensitive files secret. It takes something like the Mike Duffy trial to pry information loose.

One of the easiest ways to keep something secret is to throw the blanket of cabinet secrecy over it. Just last week, I heard a senior civil servant say that they write "advice to minister" on everything, whether it's advice to the minister or not.

It's not a guarantee the document will stay secret, but it helps.

Cabinet secrecy is intended to serve the public, by improving the decision-making process.

Instead, it's being abused, giving politicians a free pass from accountability.


Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.


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