From Pierre Trudeau to Stephen Harper, modern Canadian prime ministers are often cast as having ushered in a unique centralization of executive control, but as Ryerson University professor and author Patrice Dutil explores in his new book, it’s been a crucial feature of governance from the start.
“It’s not a new thing, it’s an old thing that has managed to reinvent itself with every generation. So people should not be complaining as though centralization of the Office of the Prime Minister is a new thing that has to be curtailed; it’s part and parcel of our tradition,” said Prof. Dutil, author of Prime Ministerial Power in Canada: Its Origins Under Macdonald, Laurier, and Borden.
Centralized prime ministerial power may have even been “necessary in order to govern a country that is as varied as ours,” said Prof. Dutil.
Published by UBC Press in June, Prime Ministerial Power in Canada is a deep-dive into the administrative styles of three of Canada’s most influential early prime ministers, and it examines how they managed structures, personalities, their own time, and explores how the power of the PM has evolved over time. Starting with Canada’s first prime minister, Conservative John A. Macdonald (1867-1873 and 1878-1891), it also covers the governance of Liberal PM Wilfrid Laurier (1896-1911), and Conservative PM Robert Borden (1911-1920).
With other projects popping up in between, the book took Prof. Dutil eight years to write in all, he said, and involved examining more than 20,000 orders in council and more than 2,000 letters. An unexpected takeaway from all that research, he said, “was the degree to which these three formative prime ministers were really workaholics.”
“When you start looking at the output of these guys, it’s truly impressive. I made an effort to try and compare them with the Americans president of their period, and there’s no comparison,” said Prof. Dutil, adding that Macdonald appears to have “invented the power nap.”
The following Q&A has been edited for style and length.
What inspired you to write this book?
“This book has been working me over for a long time. It really started with the publication of Donald Savoie’s Governing from the Centre in 1999. I loved that book. I think it’s a very important book, and I’ve often said it’s probably the most influential book in recent Canadian political science. But there was always something about it that rubbed me the wrong way, namely his argument that the centralization of power in the Office of the Prime Minister started with the Trudeau government in the 1970s, especially after 1972 when the Liberals were in minority government. It always rubbed me the wrong way because in my understanding of Canadian history, it had always been the case that Canadian prime ministers had been particularly powerful. Going back—and this is my work as a historian—going back to the early days of Confederation, I always felt that Canadian prime ministers had this particular ability to centralize power, but it never had been documented. The work we have on our prime ministers has focused exclusively on their political power; there’s very little work on the Office of the Prime Minister.
“I finally got around to it, to finally start looking into the Office of the Prime Minister; not just the office but the person of the prime minister, what made that position so influential and so powerful, especially in comparison to other Westminster systems.
“The first three prime ministers that had the most opportunity to shape the office, and my conclusion was that these guys really centralized power in the Prime Minister’s Office … there is no doubt that the Office of the Prime Minister was a centralizing force from the very beginning of Confederation.”
You write that the administrative styles of various prime ministers have never really been explored. Why do you think that is?
“The new writing on prime ministers … really emphasizes anecdote. It’s about little events that are seen to shape or to illustrate a trend, and that can be a lot of fun. Anecdotes are a lot of fun, and often they are very telling, but for me it doesn’t go far enough. I use a lot of anecdotes in my book too, [but] I was wondering, ‘Can we go further than that to try to understand the style?’
“In my book I look in particular at orders in council as an expression of style. It’s not a given that you have to issue an order in council for any number of things, what I’ve discovered was that John A. Macdonald was obsessed with orders in council, and for him it was a way of controlling the administration. As a lawyer, he used the order in council to basically staple down everything, to remove as much discretion as possible, and to make sure that he had his nose quite literally in everybody’s portfolio.
“The other issue I look at is, again, in terms of anecdotes, how prime ministers fired people, and I use a comparison to show how John A. Macdonald had a particular style of dealing swiftly with dissent, that Laurier similarly acted fairly quickly in squelching dissent, and that Robert Borden in comparison was very slow in firing Sir Sam Hughes. The idea here is to create comparative framework to measure prime ministerial styles by looking at a standard event.”
You mentioned orders in council—what tools did these prime ministers use to wield their authority?
“What I document in the book is the power of appointment, for example. All three prime ministers were very concerned with appointments and with who, in particular. What I focus on are the deputy ministers. They were—all three of them—very concerned about their deputy ministers, and paid very close attention to their appointments there. All three of them made very political appointments. Not all the appointments were political, but I would say at least half were political in the sense that they would hire as deputy ministers people who were very friendly to the government; in the case of Macdonald, people who had actually been in Parliament, who had a partisan political experience. Laurier, half his appointees at the deputy minister level had been former Liberal politicians. Borden to a much lesser degree, because Borden inherited a deputy minister core that was very young and did not have the opportunity to get rid of them, so he had to find another route. He was not the kind of person who would fire people easily, he certainly didn’t fire deputy ministers easily, but in his case he’s much less political, simply because he didn’t have as much choice. What Borden did do, however, was appoint these oversight commissions that were handed over to Conservative politicians, and that’s how he made sure that they had an oversight on the bureaucracy, an oversight that reported to him personally.”
Is that still part of centralizing power today?
“The appointment of partisan officials to the deputy minister corps is exceptional today. It just doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen, and when it does happen it becomes a big controversy. In the days of Macdonald and Laurier and Borden, these were commonplace.”
Looking at Canada’s first prime minister, how did the cabinet structure that Macdonald set out enable centralized prime ministerial power?
“Well, he did it in a number of ways. The first one really is the appointments structure. John A. Macdonald made sure, as I said earlier, that the deputy minister corps followed his lead. The second thing he did was appoint himself to particular portfolios, particularly strategic portfolios. So in 1867, for example, he names himself the minister of justice. That enabled him—at a time when the country is literally coming together and stitching itself legally—it allowed Macdonald to literally have a veto into any department of government as the government of Canada develops the legal agreements, contracts, you name it.
“He centralized power that way, and of course it helped that his deputy minister [for justice] was his brother-in-law who lived in his house.
“He made himself minister of the interior, he made himself the commissioner of Indian affairs, he made himself minister of public works—any key strategic portfolio, Macdonald made sure came back to him.
“The way all the prime ministers preserved patronage; these guys wanted to keep patronage the way it was because, again, they wanted to create ties to the prime minister, ties that would be stronger than anything else. You need to have a bureaucracy that is compliant, that obeys your laws. We can’t forget that Ottawa could be cut off for a week at a time as a result of a snow storm, how do you know they’re doing the thing they’re supposed to be doing way out in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia when there’s been no contact whatsoever for over a week?
“The patronage issue has often been condemned in Canada, I think it was absolutely essential to the creation of our country. If there had not been that link I don’t think any other link would have worked.”
In your conclusion you write that each of these former prime ministers “could walk into the Office of the Prime Minister today and recognize the instincts, the habits, and the power of its occupant.” What changes might they notice?
“Oh, they would notice the obsession with the media, that’s for sure. That’s the most obvious thing. It’s important to understand that these three guys all had newspapers working for them. They cared about the media a lot and they were involved in a lot of newspaper business decisions, but it’s a lot easier to manage a newspaper by writing a few letters, by meeting with a few people, owners, editors, that kind of thing, [than] living in fear of being side-swiped by a tweet or something on cable television or something on the blogosphere. Prime ministers [today] have nowhere near the control or the reliable tools at their disposal that these guys had.
“Because of that there’s a great deal more focus today on communications and on controlling the message, because you don’t know where the next cannon shot’s going to come from. In those days things were a lot more evenly paced, they were a lot more predictable, you still had some surprises but they could be easily managed. If there’s one thing that’s changed of course it is the 24/7 media environment in which we live, and that has created perhaps a different kind of prime minister, a prime minister that is less managerial and more of a public figure. It’s not surprising that we’re seeing a turn towards celebrities, people who have a name, people who have been seen on television for a while.
“We are definitely in a new environment.”
The Hill Times