Parliamentary Secretaries in the 36th Parliament

Article excerpt

This article looks at the history, legal status, and experiences of some Parliamentary Secretaries in the 1st session of the 36th Parliament. In a political system where backbenchers are occasionally referred to as "nobodies," do these Executive Backbenchers enjoy a special influence in Canadian governance?

The office of Parliamentary Secretary, first introduced in Canada during the First World War, provides government backbenchers with the opportunity to gain some executive and departmental experience, while also allowing the Prime Minister and senior ministers to gauge their abilities. Although the position serves this twofold function, it has also been a useful tool of the government to reward loyal backbenchers or to restrain irritating mavericks. By co-opting the latter group, the position restrains those who once sought to challenge the governing party.

Previous studies indicate that the position's legal status is ambiguous, that its roles and responsibilities are undefined, and that its impact is unpredictable. This lack of definition has reduced the influence Parliamentary Secretaries have on Canadian Governance.


The Canadian office has its origins in the British parliamentary tradition. Although it is difficult to determine clearly how and when the generic position of "Parliamentary or Under Secretary" came into existence, most observers date its arrival to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the "monarch's ministers" were transformed into the modern British ministerial form of government. As increased powers were devolved upon Ministers and Secretaries of State, the Acts of Parliament generally included a provision for an Under-Secretary of State and often, but not always, Ministers were provided a Parliamentary Secretary.(1) The first mention of a Parliamentary Secretary position in Canada may have come in 1850, when Robert Baldwin, an earlier proponent of responsible government, recommended that the Province of Canada establish a second "political office" to assist Ministers in their departmental duties. Sir Charles Adderly, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the colonies, piloted the British North American Act through the British House of Commons in 1867, for the Colonial Secretary Lord Carnavan who sat in the House of Lords.

As Canada entered the twentieth century and the demands on federal cabinet ministers began increasing, numerous proposals were made to relieve ministers of some of their duties and to provide training for potential cabinet ministers. In 1887, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald established three "sub-Ministers," with the office of Solicitor General to assist the Minister of Justice and Comptrollers of Customs and Inland Revue to assist respectively the Minister of Trade and Commerce and the Minister of Finance. Concerning these "sub-Ministers" Macdonald said: "It is also provided that the heads of these sub-departments shall be Under-Secretaries as it were -- to go in and sit, but not to be members of the Cabinet."(4) Nonetheless, there existed an increasing desire among Parliamentarians to establish the formal position of Parliamentary Secretary under the Minister as the British had done with Under-Secretaries for Secretaries of State and Parliamentary Secretaries for Ministers.(3)

The development of the Parliamentary Secretary in Federal Parliament practice was ultimately attributed to the demands of war. In order to relieve the heavily burdened Minister for External Affairs and the Minister for Militia and Defence, Prime Minister Robert Borden appointed Hugh Clark, MP for North Bruce, and Fleming McCurdy, MP for Shelburne and Queens, as their respective Parliamentary Secretaries in 1916. In 1918, a third Parliamentary Secretary was appointed to assist the minister responsible for the Department of Soldiers' Civil Re-establishment. These first Parliamentary Secretaries were appointed by Order in Council and were given an additional $5,000 per year to supplement their basic salary as Members of Parliament. …