Minister's Caucus Advisory Committees under the Harper Government

By Wilson, R. Paul | Canadian Public Administration, June 2015 | Go to article overview

Minister's Caucus Advisory Committees under the Harper Government


Wilson, R. Paul, Canadian Public Administration


Introduction

Centralization of power has characterized successive Canadian federal governments since Pierre Trudeau (Savoie 1999; Bakvis 2001; Simpson 2001); but the "politics of control" (Martin 2010) is widely perceived to have intensified under Prime Minister Stephen Harper and to subjugate Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) Members of Parliament to the direction of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO). Such analyses imply or assert that the Harper government has extended longstanding concerns about excessive party discipline and backbench decline to new heights.

While it is undoubted that the Harper government exercises "tight, almost manic control" (Taras and Waddell 2012:72)-especially public message control-over its MPs, unqualified acceptance of the marginalized caucus narrative overlooks an important innovation: Harper's 2010 creation of Minister's Caucus Advisory Committees (MCACs). These committees consist of backbench Conservative MPs and senators, and ministers are now required to consult with them as part of the formal cabinet policy development process

After considering the theoretical context of caucus management and the particular expectations for involvement held by Conservative MPs, especially those coming from the Reform Party tradition and Western Canada, the paper examines the origins and structure of the Harper MCAC process and analyses its impact on caucus-cabinet relations. It will argue that, while all governments wrestle with how best to consult with backbenchers, the Harper MCAC process goes further in terms of its formality and, to date at least, its consistent application than previous federal practice. The system is imperfect, depending on the cooperation of MPs and ministers and requiring enforcement by the prime minister. Further, it is only one dimension in the complex relationship between leader and members on the government benches. Nevertheless, advisory committees serve to increase cohesion within the Conservative parliamentary caucus by increasing the policy influence of backbench MPs and making them feel more valued as team players. In positing ministerial caucus advisory committees as an important tool for the prime minister in attempting to maintain party unity, the paper provides an important counter narrative to existing impressions of overbearing discipline and backbench marginalization in the Harper era.

This paper is based on semi-structured interviews with nineteen current or former members of the Conservative parliamentary caucus from all regions of the country, including one senator and four cabinet ministers, and also including Brent Rathgeber, a Conservative MP from Edmonton who quit the party's caucus in June 2013 over the government's position on his private member's bill. Interviews were also conducted with eleven current or former political staffers familiar with the MCACs, and three senior public servants. In order to encourage candid comments, all participants were promised anonymity, although one agreed to be identified. Sources are identified generically in the text (for example, MP1, Min 2), and interview dates are provided in an appendix. The paper also includes personal observations from the author based on his time as director of policy in the Prime Minister's Office from February 2009 to June 2011. Two limitations should be noted. First, while comments illustrate a range of opinion within caucus, no claim can be made that they are statistically representative. Second, conventions of caucus and cabinet confidentiality restrict access to specific examples of policy issues under discussion, thus limiting corroboration of MPs' claims of influence. This limitation is likely to apply broadly to any studies of caucus-cabinet interaction (Thomas 1985; Malloy 2003: 19).

Caucus management: the theoretical context

Tension between political parties can obscure tensions within each parliamentary caucus. All parliamentary party leaders-not just the prime minister-seek unity in order to successfully advance their party towards the goal of getting or keeping power and they have many tools at their disposal-including carrots, sticks and procedural levers-to assert control. …

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