The House

Donald Savoie: Government by cabinet will be a 'major challenge'

One of Canada's top experts on public administration says Prime Minister Trudeau's pledge to run government by cabinet will be a 'major challenge'.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a news conference with his cabinet after they were sworn-in at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Wednesday, November 4, 2015. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

One of Canada's leading experts on public administration says that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's plan to run government by cabinet — as opposed to a top down approach with power concentrated in the hands of the prime minister's office — is a noble goal but one that will be incredibly difficult to implement.

"The wish to have cabinet government is fine, empowering line ministers is fine, but today we live in a world of social media — access to information — and one tweet could upset the whole apple cart," Donald Savoie, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Public Administration at Université de Moncton, said in an interview with Chris Hall on CBC Radio's The House.

"It's going to take a willingness to spend political capital, it's going to take a willingness to accept that there will be some mistakes, that you're going to have to explain some things, it's going to take a willingness to let a minister fly on there own," he said.

Trudeau has said he wants his cabinet ministers to have greater leeway, and control over their departments.

He also told CBC News in an interview with Peter Mansbridge, during the election campaign, that he wants to begin decentralizing power away from the PMO, and non-elected officials therein, a move that started under his late father.

Speaking about openness and transparency in government, Trudeau said that although it's "generally understood" his father started that control in the Prime Minister's Office, "I actually quite like the symmetry of me being the one who ends that."

"My father had a particular way of doing things. I have a different way, and his was suited to his time and mine is suited to my time. I believe that we need to trust Canadians. I  believe that it's not just about restoring Canadians' trust in government by demonstrating trust towards them, I think we get better public policy when it's done openly and transparently," Trudeau said.

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But Savoie says the modern desire to keep ministers — and all members of particular political caucus — on message could outweigh a desire for openness.

"There's a lot of new ministers and one [of them] gets the government in trouble ... a couple of bad tweets or massive mistakes ... and somebody in PMO is going to say 'Jeez, the polls are going down, we've got to stop that, we have to make sure they're on message, and we got to make sure it's spinned right.'"

And it's not only a matter of political messaging, the machinery of government has changed so much since the last time Canada was truly run by cabinet ministers. 

"We have two or three generation of public servants that have worked under governing from the centre, under court government. 

"Public servants that worked under cabinet government under [former prime minister Lester] Pearson are long gone, so you have to change the culture, it's a different world," Savoie said. 

"There's a lot of merit in having a deep respect for parliament but time will tell. I think we have to have a level of tolerance both from the media, and Canadians, that if we are going to have cabinet government, if we are going to empower line departments and their ministers, let's give them a bit of leeway," Savoie said.

"I wish them luck, I hope it works."