The announced departure of Senator Marjory LeBreton from cabinet this morning has led not to furious speculation about her replacement, but rather about the PMO’s plans for the position itself. According to the government sources, Stephen Harper plans to eliminate the position of Leader of the Government in the Senate from cabinet going forward – apparently oblivious that this is a Very Big Problem.
You see, there is an actual reason why the position of Leader of the Government (LGS) in the Senate is a full Minister of the Crown. It’s not just because they felt they needed to give someone a limo and a driver, but rather, because of a little something called Ministerial Responsibility. And yes, this is an important foundational principle to our system of government.
Like the Commons, the Senate is also in place to hold the government to account, and like the Commons, one of the ways in which it does that is by means of its own Question Period. There, Senators can ask questions of the government in order to get answers, and hold them to account. (It’s generally a much better effort than we see in the Commons as well, but that’s a topic of discussion for another day). Generally it is the LGS who answers the questions on behalf of the government because she is a Minister of the Crown, and thus is empowered to answer on behalf of the government. Occasionally, if there is another Minister of the Crown drawn from the Senate ranks – something which happens from time to time, especially if the government caucus is absent any representatives from a certain region, and because we have a federal construction to our cabinets, there needs to be that kind of representation in the ministry – then Senators can also ask questions of that minister. (And like the Commons, Senators can also ask questions of committee chairs, which is rare but does happen).
Not having a Minister of the Crown answering on behalf of the government is a grave weakening of our systems of accountability. While the government apparently plans to write to the Speaker of the Senate to empower a LGS who is not in cabinet to answer the questions anyway, it reduces that person to the bearer of talking points rather than someone who can actually be held to account – much as the system is designed to do.
The other problem that the brain trusts in the PMO have overlooked is the Senate’s role in introducing government legislation. Again, this tends to be a more rare occurrence overall, but in recent years, given how completely inept the current Government House Leader in the Commons is at managing the Order Paper, the government has introduced more bills in the Senate, rather than just complex and technical bills that could benefit from the time and attention that the Senate is better at affording bills than the Commons. The problem is that government bills need ministers to sponsor them. It’s another fundamental basic principle of our system – only the government can authorise expenditures from the treasury, and it’s governments who propose and the backbench and the opposition who holds them to account for those proposals. So unless Harper has decided that the government will no longer introduce legislation in the Senate, then he will need a minister in the Chamber to sponsor it.
It’s also more than a question of precedent – the only time there wasn’t an LGS in cabinet was Senator William Ross, and he only held the post three days before the Meghan Government was defeated, before Ross could be sworn into cabinet. (Yes, this was the King-Byng Affair, for the record). It’s about the fundamental principles of a Westminster democracy. (Update: There have been a total of four cases, but the point still stands about accountability and legislation).
While I’m sure that Stephen Harper and his loyal staffers think that it’s a brilliant PR move to ensure that the cabinet is entirely elected and from the Commons, they’re flirting dangerously with undermining the bedrock of our system. It’s already bad enough that they have parliamentary secretaries answering in Commons QP instead of ministers (which again, weakens the system of accountability), and that they have little regard for the principle of Ministerial Responsibility to begin with. But to make a mockery of the Senate’s role in holding the government to account is a grievous breach of the way the system works, and we should be making a bigger deal of it than we’ve been hearing.