Mulroney's lesson for his successors: There's no prize for accepting ministerial resignations

Long gone are the days when a prime minister like Brian Mulroney would accept the resignation of seven ministers in one term. Mulroney later realized he made a strategic mistake — and so did his successors.

Cabinet ministers don't resign nowadays, they just linger and then get shuffled

Bill Morneau has been the favourite target of the Conservatives during question period. And yet despite the onslaught, he remains the finance minister. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Five ministers resigned from Brian Mulroney's cabinet in the first two years of his term, and several more would depart as a result of unflattering situations in the years hence.

But, with typical elan, Brian Mulroney remembered his willingness to accept the resignations of his ministers as a mark of naive idealism.

"In 1985 I believed that ministers should be held to the highest standards of professional and personal behaviour ... Practically, however, I realize now that I handed the opposition and media yet another weapon to use against us later," the former prime minister wrote in his memoirs published in 2007.

"I failed to understand that I was going to be pilloried for accepting ministerial resignations and not respected for demanding them."

Brian Mulroney accepted the resignations of a bunch of his ministers during his first term as prime minister. It's an approach his successors haven't followed. (Chuck Mitchell/Canadian Press)

Be that as it may, Mulroney's cabinet ministers still had a special flair for finding trouble. His defence minister was bid adieu after visiting a strip club in West Germany. The fisheries minister was dispatched after approving the sale of sub-standard tuna. 

By comparison, the misadventures of Justin Trudeau's ministers seem rather unadventurous — perhaps not even Mulroney would have asked for their resignations just yet.

But hunting ministers remains one of Ottawa's favourite pastimes. And while the federal government has been busy doing the various things a federal government does — administering programs, appointing judges, implementing policy — there has lately been a convergence of trouble for Justin Trudeau's cabinet.

Indeed, at least three ministers are now competing for ownership of the adjective "embattled." 

The troubles of Lebouthillier and Hehr

Trudeau, like the other prime ministers who followed Mulroney, has likely understood that dispatching a minister doesn't so much resolve a problem as it confirms the existence of serious wrongdoing.

Still, for at least a moment or two on Tuesday, it seemed Kent Hehr, the minister for persons with disabilities, was going to be in an untenable position after a group of thalidomide survivors accused him of making a series of insensitive remarks during a recent meeting.

But then he categorically denied the most unflattering of the comments attributed to him. And after asking two questions about the allegations on Tuesday afternoon, the Conservatives dropped it entirely on Wednesday.

For the Liberal government's sake, Hehr's embarrassment might have at least distracted attention away from the plight of National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier. 

On Monday, Lebouthillier was asked to account for new concerns about the Canada Revenue Agency's handling of the disability tax credit, reviving an issue that first emerged in October.

Before that, there was a tempest over the CRA's apparent plan to tax employee discounts.

National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier is facing renewed criticism for her department's handling of the disability tax credit. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

And then, for good measure, there was the auditor general's finding that the CRA was difficult to reach by phone and providing taxpayers with incorrect information.

Making it harder for the disabled to claim a government benefit they are entitled to — as the CRA is alleged to be doing — is not a good look, nor is not seeming to be in firm control of one's own department.

But even Lebouthillier's problems have run a distant second on the Conservative list of concerns. 

The fate of Bill Morneau

As you might have noticed, Bill Morneau is still the finance minister.

This despite the fact that Andrew Scheer — "after careful consideration" and "acting" in his "capacity as leader of the Opposition" — made a great show of "officially" calling for Morneau's resignation.

Probably not even Scheer expected that call to be answered forthwith. But the Conservative leader might have at least hoped his demand wouldn't be followed by pundits questioning the latest case against Morneau and likening the attacks on the finance minister to "character assassination."

The Conservatives have dedicated great gobs of time in question period to stating and restating their questions and complaints about Morneau. Having wounded him, they seem dedicated to ensuring he never has a chance to recover.

And even if they overplayed their hand last week, Morneau's situation still seems perilous. If the ethics commissioner, who is looking into two opposition concerns about possible conflicts of interest, finds that Morneau is guilty of a significant breach, Morneau could face more widespread calls for his dismissal.

Of course, it could also turn out that Morneau didn't contravene the Conflict of Interest Act. At which point, the Conservatives might wish they'd spent more time on Lebouthillier or Hehr.

Wait for the next shuffle

By the midpoint of Mulroney's first mandate, his government could be described as "scandal-ridden," a tag that would stick for the duration of his time in office. So far it's not clear that any of the Trudeau cabinet's problems have similarly congealed into a pithy narrative. Maybe arrogant. Maybe bumbling.

That narrative of scandal might have been applied regardless of whether anyone actually resigned. But, as Mulroney noted, Jean Chrétien was more shrewd — and "less demanding" — when it came to embattled ministers.

And Chrétien's approach has become the standard. Except for exceptional circumstances, the beleaguered are typically left in place unless or until they can be quietly moved aside, at some later point, as part of a larger cabinet shuffle.

Jean Chrétien's laissez faire approach for dealing with scandal-plagued ministers remains the standard today. (Reuters)

Think of 11 months ago when Maryam Monsef was moved. Meanwhile, It's been seven months since the Conservatives thought the defence minister should resign and he's still around.

Each of this fall's problems might not be addressed until a shuffle sometime in the new year.

It nonetheless stands to reason that the shortest route to damaging a government's credibility is by wounding one or more of the individuals that government has put front and centre to represent it. However rare the feat, an opposition would be forgiven for wanting to mount a ministerial head on the wall.

Of course, there might be another lesson of the Mulroney years.

A total of seven ministers resigned in the first four years and another six were dropped in a major midterm shuffle. But for all that turmoil, scandal and blunder, the Progressive Conservatives were re-elected in 1988 with another majority.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.


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