Primus extra pares: Prime Ministers and power

The evolution of the job of PM

When Governing from the Centre by Donald Savoie was published in 1999, positing that power had begun consolidating in the Prime Minister’s Office in the mid 1990s, I argued with Savoie that the evolution of this phenomenon was important, but it was not new. Rather, I noted, it could be traced back to Trudeau père and the advent of a centralizing PMO that had the likes of Marc Lalonde, Jim Coutts, and Tom Axworthy continuously accruing power to “The Centre” and changing the dynamic of decision-making in government. Turns out I was wrong. As Patrice Dutil, a capable historian and scholar of public administration, shows in Prime Ministerial Power in Canada: Its Origins Under Macdonald, Laurier and Borden,  those trends should be cast back to the origin of their development, and if blame is to be laid, then Sir John A. Macdonald deserves his share.

With careful comparative research—I picture Dutil, sallow and wan, emerging from what must have been months in the archives—the author paints a detailed picture of these three leaders and their exercise of power. Who knew that Macdonald used the deputy ministers to exert control over his ministers; or that Laurier fired so many of his ministers to control the party; or that Borden could send troops to the Boer War without even a discussion in cabinet, let alone the House of Commons?

Dutil makes several key points in this book. One, in a Westminster parliamentary democracy the prime minister is more than primus inter pares. Two, the agglomeration of power around the PM has been going on for a very long time. Three, the instruments of that centralization have changed over time. Four, the subtlety of the exercise of power is manifest in outstanding leaders. And finally, the importance of administration and attention to detail as an instrument of governing and the exercise of power is crucial. And it is that exploration of administrative detail that is really the major value of this work in the understanding of prime ministerial authority. Patrice Dutil has earned his place in Canadian letters by having founded the Literary Review of Canada (LRC). He should also be thanked for this contribution to our understanding of prime ministers in Canada and the origin of their power.

On the shoulders of such giants of historical research as Michael Bliss, Peter Hennessy, Jack Granatstein, Norman Hilmer, Ramsay Cook, and John English, Dutil casts light on the minutiae of governing that elucidates the challenges of managing and entrenching power. He organizes the book around a historical description of the three early prime ministers followed by a focus on structure, substance and then style as explanations of how the three centralized and exercised their power. (Full disclosure: I get an acknowledgement for a discussion over a pizza encouraging the treatment of “style.”)

The strength and innovation of the book is in the detailed analysis of the use of royal commissions, orders-in-council and correspondence as instruments of power. Moreover, its description of the development of a professional, non-partisan public service from the partisans appointed by these prime ministers is important. But it does not draw sufficient conclusions about the impact of these instruments on the daily act of governing Canada. Nor does it consider these instruments in comparison with other instruments of power. How important were they relative to patronage? How did they complement the use of the bureaucracy or party management? And what can a thoughtful reader glean from this analysis about the relative power of the PMO in 2017?

The parallels to modern policy and politics are striking. The priorities of Macdonald, Laurier, and Borden were infrastructure, Indian affairs, information technology, debt and transfers to the provinces as well as defence. Sound familiar? The portfolios of Indian affairs, public works, railways and canals, post office, and expenditures for cables, telegraphs, messengers, census and stationery, as well as keeping the provinces afloat, all have their modern analogues. The Fenian raids as well as the Riel Rebellion, the Boer War and the imperial war cabinet of the First World War, on the other hand, were preoccupations of these earlier prime ministers.

The instruments of power are similar today to what they were in the first 50 years of Canada. Constitutionally, prime ministers in the Westminster system really only have two powers: they can organize government and they can appoint ministers. If you are a savvy and wily PM, those may suffice. But you will have to supplement them with other instruments to entrench and maintain your power.

Instruments of power are manifold but the constraints on that power are extensive as well. Clearly all PMs use appointments and patronage to great effect as ways of building and entrenching the political support they require. Appointment to cabinet has always been and continues to be the main source of authority of the PM. However, each time the PM appoints a minister he creates losers in the caucus. As Dutil shows, consolidating power may require firing a minister or forcing them to quit. When trying to discern whether a finance minister like Alexander Galt or Paul Martin “was fired or quit,” a clever observer once said “he was quit.”

Macdonald, Laurier and Borden each appointed themselves to the position of president of the Privy Council (which has lately been assigned to a utility player) to great effect. In addition they appointed themselves to the railways, post office or defence positions to give themselves the ability to affect the party across the country. Of course these were nation-building jobs. But they also positioned the PM to go beyond the portfolio and exercise power over the party.

Each of the three prime ministers relied on key colleagues to build and maintain a consensus of support. Macdonald relied on Hector-Louis Langevin (a scoundrel, crook and racist to be sure, but a loyalist and father of Confederation as well). Sir Wilfrid Laurier used former premiers. And Sir Robert Borden relied on Arthur Meighen.

Unfortunately, there is not an exposition of the personal or institutional relationship with the finance ministers of the day. Pierre Trudeau with John Turner and Donald Macdonald, Brian Mulroney with Michael Wilson and Don Mazankowski, Stephen Harper with Jim Flaherty, or Jean Chrétien with Paul Martin (fraught as that relationship was), were remarkable and interdependent duos. Trudeau fils and Bill Morneau, so far, appear to be merely a competent and businesslike pair. The bailout of the Commercial Bank leading to the firing of Alexander Galt (November 1867) aside, the first 50 years seemed not to have strong finance ministers.

Dutil convincingly makes the point that the administrative competence of the prime ministers made them a force to be reckoned with compared to the bumbling incompetence of some of their ministers. And they used the cabinet and its much more frequent meetings (sometimes daily) to discuss the minutiae of governing and to control the debate among ministers. To some analysts, daily cabinet meeting centralizes power in the PMO. To others, cabinet not meeting regularly is a manifestation of centralization.

By the same token, the power of those early leaders was to some extent constrained by the need to maintain a cabinet consensus on the agenda and priorities, as it is today. Even if the cabinet is but a focus group, woe betide the prime minister who ignores the political markers put down by ministers in cabinet. If you don’t think cabinet or caucus matter, just ask Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron or Theresa May.

All prime ministers use their command of policy and programmes, and Dutil characterizes administrative detail as the base of their power. But in some respects it is their intellect and their command of policy (what Dutil calls “substance”) that elicits loyalty. Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the former constitutional law professor, was clearly the smartest guy in the room, a comment also often made of Stephen Harper. Harper was always on top of his files and knew at least as much about an issue as any of his ministers. Jean Chrétien was the only person I know who faithfully read the back page tables of the Economist. Paul Martin was a policy wonk of great capacity and would engage in vigorous, sometimes violent argument with analysts to turn each issue over in his mind and see it from all angles. Sympathies to the minister or analyst who was not prepared in dealing with their PM. Justin Trudeau appears to be a brilliant retail politician with the capacity to choose capable people to surround himself with and to know when to take their advice.

Of course, caucus can be a check on a rogue prime minister. But intuitive political skills can make a leader. Mulroney was a model in this regard. When he was at eleven percent in the polls he would still get a standing ovation from the caucus. He knew the name of each MP’s spouse and their children. He used all this to great effect as an instrument of power. Similarly, Chrétien used his petit gar de Shawinigan persona as a way of keeping the caucus and public happy. But he was well read, contrary to the public perception, keeping up in the Economist, reading biographies and listening to Mozart and Beethoven. These politicians’ intuitive understanding of the public and the intimacy they could develop with their caucus was a determinant of their success.

Chrétien worked from the prime minister’s Centre Block office, closer to the House. Harper worked from the Langevin Block office, away from the cut and thrust. Style indeed matters. As Dutil points out in the chapter on Borden, our eighth PM was distant, aloof and withdrawn and did not maintain the intimacy with his cabinet or caucus needed to maintain his power. He ultimately resigned from office, depleted, worn out, and a shadow of the wartime leader he had been.

Interestingly, the PMO did not exist as an institution for maintaining or elaborating power in the first 50 years. There were no Marc Lalondes, Derek Burneys, Eddie Goldenbergs, Ian Brodies or Gerald Buttses. That came later. Rather, Dutil’s prime ministers used the formerly partisan but evolving professional public service and especially their clerks of the Privy Council and their deputy ministers to help manage the ministries. Borrowing from the Northcote-Trevelyan Report from Britain, they set the stage for the evolution of a great institution of governance: the public service.

The chapter on a day in the life of his subjects brings much-needed animation to Dutil’s text. It shows that not only were these men members of Parliament and leaders of parties and governments, they were also husbands, fathers and real people. The intimacy of their personal lives affected their performance as prime ministers. They also each chose to work at home sporadically to clear their heads and provide time for strategic thinking. Macdonald’s time with his disabled daughter was important for him, as Dutil points out. Chrétien much preferred to work from 24 Sussex than from his office. Abroad, he was sometimes accompanied by his grandson Olivier. Mulroney worked the phones from home. And his son Ben (before becoming an entertainment guru) helped ground him. Pierre Trudeau swam in the mornings in the private pool built for him with party money. And of course Margaret had their first-born child, Justin, while living at 24 Sussex (talk about “to the manor born”!). And who can forget Stephen Harper walking his son Ben to school and…shaking his hand. Of course we all saw Justin Trudeau’s public challenges with the nannies hired for his young children and were impressed with Xavier walking in the Pride parade and the PM’s socks. And we have since learned about the impact on policy of William Lyon Mackenzie King’s mother and his dog Pat, even after they died.

Dutil points out the importance of Agnes Macdonald, Zoé Laurier and Laura Borden to the prime ministers. Laureen Harper, Aline Chrétien, Mila Mulroney, Margaret Trudeau, and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau are, likewise, hugely important to the functioning of the prime ministership. There is a need for this intimacy and private time. And it is necessary for maintaining their families and liberating them to think big thoughts.

Dutil’s book goes up to the line of insight, revelation and discernment, but does not quite go over. His description of the details of the history seems to prevent him from drawing conclusions about the application of his research to the prime ministers of recent time. In the year of Canada 150, the first 50 years of the country’s history can only tell us so much about power of prime ministers. The history of the most recent 50 years of prime ministerial power will be even more fascinating.

Prime ministers are indeed first beyond equals: primus extra pares. As Donald Macdonald, a strong finance minister to Pierre Trudeau, said when declining to run for the leadership of the Liberal party, “I just don’t have the royal jelly.” There is something special and hard to define needed to be a successful prime minister.

Consolidating prime ministerial power is a response to the evolution of the challenges faced by the country. The decline of empire, increasing globalization, coalition or minority government, increasing use of technology (be it rail then or internet now) or intergovernmental relations all require an increasing degree of centralization of authority. Justin Trudeau said, “Cabinet government is back.” But he is still forced to be the primary manager of international relations as leader-to-leader relations will now more than ever leave foreign ministers involved, but not responsible.

To sum up, there are three triads of prime ministerial power: S3, I3 and P2A. Dutil bases his analysis on S3: structure, substance and style. The determinants of success for a PM in the exercise of power are also related to I3: intellect, intuition and intimacy. And prime ministers are at the intersection of P2A: politics, policy and administration. Well managed, all these elements translate into power.