Stockpiling influence

John Crosbie
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First Ministers hoard power, neutering other politicians

First in a two-part series

Before getting into the substance of my topic, I must mention an outstanding program on CBS Feb. 9 — “The Night that Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles” — a two-hour show that aired 50 years to the night that the Beatles made their debut in North America on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

It was an outstanding theatrical production which provided a night of unalloyed pleasure in hearing so many American rock ’n’ roll stars playing songs the Beatles made famous during their brilliant career.

That night on “Ed Sullivan,” when those four young Englishmen captivated most TV-watchers in Canada and the U.S. with their amazing performances, started their captivation of modern music-lovers around the world.

The CBS program included live performances by Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney — the only survivors of the Fab Four, which included, of course, the outstanding John Lennon, tragically slain years later in New York, and the marvellous composer George Harrison, who died of cancer several years ago.

Jane and I saw the Beatles perform for the first time that night 50 years ago, when we were just 33 and entranced by their music, as most of the world has been ever since. Their talent — not only for singing and playing musical instruments, but in composing music — has been unequalled since, and it was a great pleasure to see and hear Starr and McCartney.


And now to my main topic: the political situation in the modern democratic countries of the world, particularly in the U.K., the Commonwealth countries, the United States and Canada.

Anyone interested in political history soon realizes that in democratic countries, the nature of governments has changed immensely because of changes in society generally, certainly since the First World War and particularly since the Second World War.

The greatest change for people interested in public life and elected politics is that communications has completely revolutionized the environment within which they have to operate.

Politicians today have to deal with inescapable technology — cellphones, lobby groups with their electronic feelers, iPads, Twitter, call-in shows on radio all hours of the day, constant news broadcasts featuring suspected scandals and sensationalism of every kind, and the inescapable torrent of slander, rumours and hurtful gossip that circulate all day, every day.

 The dictionary defines “twitter” as to chirp rapidly or excitedly, and Twitter is certainly one of the most observable of these modern developments.

This creates an environment that dissuades many who might otherwise run for office from risking their reputations.

Power must be shared

In modern democratic countries, a major change is needed to restore some real power and authority to members of elected bodies such as, in Canada, the House of Commons and the Senate, federal and provincial legislative bodies and municipal councils.

The problem is even greater for nations not following the British parliamentary system. One example of the separation-of-powers system is the presidency of the United States, where the president or the executive authority has no control when it comes to having legislation passed or stopped by the independent Senate and House of Representatives. This leads to stalemate and serious crises, which we have seen in recent years.

Modern communication favours giving all the attention to leaders of political parties during campaigns, and so when majorities are elected, the leader with the majority is no longer just first among equals in a cabinet but is recognized as the one who makes all the final decisions — who’s going to be a minister and who is not, and how long they’re going to stay.

We need major change to restore some power and authority to cabinet ministers, as well.

Currently, the prime minister and premiers are the only ones the public recognize as having all the authority in governments, with members of cabinets completely subservient. This is even more true for MHAs and MPs generally.

When influence was earned

One condition observable both in our federal government as well as in various provincial governments is cabinet bloat.

On July 19, 2013, there were 39 ministers in the federal cabinet. When I was a minister in the government of Brian Mulroney (1984-93), there were 40 people in cabinet, but ministers who were not on the Priorities and Planning Committee had little opportunity to influence anything outside their own departments, if they had a department.

In addition to the Priorities and Planning Committee, there were other pivotal cabinet committees that you needed to be on if you were to have any real influence in decisions of the government, particularly if you were minister of a province like Newfoundland and Labrador, responsible to voters of that province for decisions that affected them.

When I was in politics, I had a great belief in the principles of cabinet government and parliamentary democracy which, in the 19th century, meant that — subject to the mandate given to him by the PM — a minister would be allowed to run his department as he saw fit, but if he didn’t perform adequately the PM could remove him.

I also believed in the collegiality of cabinet; that every member bore a share in the collective responsibility for the decisions and actions of the cabinet as a whole.

This is not a principle acted upon any longer.

Today, governments act under the belief that all power flows from the centre, from the Prime Minister’s Office, and that the PM and the PMO should be directly involved in all activities of the government with or without reference to the minister responsible.

Impotent appendages

Today, cabinet members are treated as impotent appendages. In our federal government, the PM is pre-eminent and at the centre of the spider’s web of power with his own staff to provide him with political intelligence, the Privy Council Office (PCO) to oversee operations in the government generally and the Treasury Board staff to control government spending.

First Ministers have the power to delay or delete any item on a cabinet agenda, and if they have the energy and the will and the interest, they can control anything of significance that happens in his or her administration.

Another great impediment to MPs or MHAs having any real influence is the fact that first ministers decide who is to be appointed as officers of the caucus or legislative committees, and those people — since they are appointed by the first minister and can be removed by him — take their directions from the PM or premier, so caucuses are of little influence unless the first minister has made serious mistakes and the government is in real political trouble.

One disturbing end result of this hoarding of power and the constant scrutiny political leaders are under is that not a heck of a lot of difficult decisions get made.

Next week: Bending to public pressure

John Crosbie welcomes your feedback


Organizations: Beatles, CBS, Priorities and Planning Committee House of Commons Senate and House of Representatives Privy Council Office Treasury Board

Geographic location: United States, Canada, New York Newfoundland and Labrador

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Recent comments

  • Angus
    February 15, 2014 - 15:23

    Mr. Crosbie: The following quote pretty much sums up the state of modern democracy(and it apllies to all western democracies) "The American writer Fran Loebowitz hit the nail on the head when she stated: "In the Soviet Union, capitalism triumphed over communism. In this country (USA), capitalism triumphed over democracy."

    February 15, 2014 - 14:25

    Mr. Crosbie's articles in the Telegram are typically banal or partisan - and indeed only rarely sound like the Mr. Crosbie I had come to know. This offering is neither partisan nor - despite his shout-out to the Beatles - is it inconsequential. He has struck on an phenomena that is not only at the root of many governance problems in Canada and the provinces, but has done more than any other to undermine public confidence in our political system. The omnipotence of the PMO was clearly behind the recent, ongoing Senate scandal and the misdirected, impractical calls for its abolition. It has been the subject of extensive academic interest in recent years including 'Governing from the Centre' by Don Savoie at the University of Moncton. But while I agree with Crosbie's broad strokes, I don't particularly subscribe to his notion that it is a trend engendered in any way by advances in social media. My principal disagreement however is with his suggestion that the concentration of executive power is somehow worse outside the British parliamentary system. The American example, if anything, is evidence to the contrary. Political gridlock in the U.S. is only possible because the President lacks the ability to easily ignore or over-ride the will of his parliament (i.e. Congress). Obama might be president of the most powerful country on earth, but that power is limited relative to that of Harper when it comes to their respective abilities to act independently of those chosen directly by the electorate to represent it. Which takes us back to senates. The U.S. senate is not only the equal of the House of Representatives and an effective check on the presidency, but it serves the added function of protecting the interests of states - especially smaller states. Our senate is virtually impotent not only in its ability to curb the powers of the PMO but, as presently configured, in its usefulness to provinces like our own. The Senate's predicament is owed partly to its flawed design, but more so to the systematic manner in which it has been reduced to that of a valhalla for the worst, often least deserving, partisans - in other words, those totally subservient to the Office of the Prime Minister. As I have said before, Crosbie no longer owes particular allegiance to any political party or government. Indeed the party in which he was once a star performer no longer exists. People like Crosbie who have already made a major contribution to the province and the country can continue to do so by reflecting more in a non-partisan way - as he has in this column - on the flaws of the present system and the possible remedies. As the Beatles might have put it, he just needs to 'act naturally'.

  • saelcove
    February 15, 2014 - 11:47

    This guy should do the same as williams go away