Cabinet and an Overlooked Point of Influence: Cabinet Committees

Regardless of who forms government after October 19, a new Cabinet will have to be named. This process is always of interest to the Parliamentary Press Gallery so Canadians are often provided with a great deal of information around who the federal Cabinet comprises as well as speculation as to why they were appointed.

However, a point of influence that is often overlooked are Cabinet Committees. This is where Ministers reach consensus and decide on issues. Those wishing to impact government decisions should familiarize themselves with the role and membership of these committees.

Cabinet Making

Ministers are appointed by the Governor General, on the advice of the Prime Minister. In choosing a Cabinet, merit and experience are very important qualities. However, they are just two factors a Prime Minister must take into consideration. A nation as large and diverse as Canada, requires geographic and linguistic balance along with gender and minority representation.

When appointed, each Minister will receive a Mandate Letter from the Prime Minister. These letters will identify priority issues or major challenges that the Minister will need to address in their portfolio. Federally, these letters have not been made public. However, areas Cabinet Ministers will be asked to focus on will almost certainly be articulated in the Speech from the Throne as well.

Cabinet is where Ministers reach agreement on issues, by working through a process of compromise. However, most ministerial discussions take place in Cabinet committees before they arrive on the agenda of Cabinet. The goal of this system is to lessen the workload of the Cabinet. By the time an issue or policy is presented to Cabinet, the bulk of discussion and negotiation has already taken place.

Cabinet Committees

Cabinet committees are an extension of Cabinet and are the main forum wherein Cabinet can resolve different perspectives. The Prime Minister establishes both standing and temporary committees and selects their membership. The chairs of these committees act with the authority of the Prime Minister, including setting the committee agenda.

Under Prime Minister Harper, the most powerful Cabinet Committee is Priorities and Planning. Chaired by the Prime Minister, this committee provides strategic direction on government priorities and expenditure management, ratifies committee recommendations and approves appointments.

The other Cabinet Committees include: Operations (provides day-to-day coordination of the government’s agenda, including issues management, legislation and house planning, and communications); Treasury Board (responsible for accountability, financial, personnel management, approving regulations and most orders-in-council); Social Affairs (health care, justice, public safety, Aboriginal affairs, training and skills development, culture and immigration policy issues); Economic Prosperity (includes international trade, sustainable development, natural resources, fisheries, agriculture, transport, infrastructure and communities, regional development, as well as environment and energy security), and; Foreign Affairs and Security (foreign affairs, international development, public and national security, and defence policy issues).

Each Minister is placed on the Cabinet Committee relevant to their portfolio. Regional ministers also sit on the Priority and Planning Committee.

The Process

There is strict protocol by which items make it on a committee agenda and then onto the agenda of Cabinet. Policy announcements are made after a Cabinet decision and after the Treasury Board’s approval of any resources needed to implement the decision.

In the event that a Cabinet decision requires legislation, a bill is then drafted by the Department of Justice. The Government House Leader’s office has the ability to determine the order of consideration of government bills by the House of Commons but Cabinet determines the overall direction of the government’s legislative program. Timing of the process can very much depend on political considerations of the party in power.

After the Election

Even if the Conservatives remain in power following October 19, there will be new faces in Cabinet. However, the operation of Cabinet Committees should remain the same under Prime Minister Harper.

If either the NDP or Liberals win, Cabinet Committees will still be in place but perhaps under different mandates. If a coalition is part of the equation, it will take skilled and careful negotiation among the parties involved in naming a Cabinet and assigning committee membership.