On the Senate and separation, what happened to cabinet solidarity?

There is an old-fashioned sounding term, “cabinet solidarity,” that I’ve been thinking about this week, after Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said he was for abolishing the Senate and Denis Lebel, minister of infrastructure, communities and intergovernmental affairs, said he thinks if 50 per cent plus one voted to separate in a referendum, that would be enough for Quebec to exit Canada.

Neither position is on its face outlandish. I happen to also favour abolishing the Senate, and I know of reasonable people who argue a bare majority should be enough to win a future referendum. But that’s not the point. What matters is that both these positions go against the policy of the government in which Flaherty and Lebel serve as ministers.

So have I missed the revoking of the quaint notion that ministers are allowed to argue as much as they like in the sanctified secrecy of a cabinet meeting, but absolutely must, in public, support the policies they arrive at together? I checked and it doesn’t seem like I have.

At least, not from looking at the 2011 document entitled Accountable Government: A Guide for Ministers and Ministers of State, produced by the Privy Council Office, the public service nerve centre that supports the prime minister and cabinet, which “sets out core principles regarding the roles and responsibilities of ministers in Canada’s system of responsible parliamentary government.” Under the heading “Collective Ministerial Responsibility,” the guide offers this instruction:

“All members of the ministry are collectively responsible for carrying out the government’s policies as established by the cabinet. They are therefore expected to work in close consultation with their ministerial colleagues. This principle is the foundation of a key constitutional convention known as cabinet solidarity. Policies presented to parliament and to the public must be the agreed policies of the cabinet. Ministers and ministers of state cannot dissociate themselves from or repudiate the decisions of cabinet or their ministry colleagues unless they resign from the ministry.”

That seems pretty clear. Yet Flaherty, speaking to reporters on Monday, had this to say when he was asked about all the uproar surrounding the Senate expense affair: “I’m actually an advocate of abolition of the Senate. I always have been. I just think in this day and age to have a non-elected legislative body is an anachronism.” He also described the Senate as “disruptive of what we’re trying to do economically,” a pretty strong comment coming from the guy in charge of running the economy—especially since the government policy unambiguously aims to reform, not abolish, the Senate.

As for Lebel, who along with his other roles is the minister in charge of Quebec’s regional development agency—he’s often described as Harper’s “lieutenant” in the province—he granted two radio interviews on Monday and was asked in both about a hypothetical next referendum on Quebec’s future in or out of Canada. And he reportedly indicated both times that 50 per cent plus one was good enough for him.

That’s awkward, since his own government has recently intervened in a court case to fight a Quebec law, called Bill 99, which holds that a referendum outcome of 50 per cent plus one voting for splitting from Canada would be sufficient for the separatists to legitimately declare victory.

The court challenge was filed by an English-rights activist in Quebec shortly after Bill 99 was passed way back in 2000. The law was the reaction of Lucien Bouchard’s Parti Québécois government to the federal Clarity Act, the landmark legislation passed by then-prime minister Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government to declare that secession negotiations could be triggered only by a clear majority on a clear question,  leaving open to debate exactly what would constitute clarity on either score.

These are not minor or debatable points of federal government policy. Nothing could be more central, given the news these days, than Senate reform policy; nothing is more sensitive, just about anytime, than Ottawa’s stance on national unity. How is it that cabinet ministers are voicing personal positions at variance with their government’s policy on these crucial issues, apparently with impunity?

Perhaps the Prime Minister, who might normally be expected to insist on traditional cabinet discipline, is distracted.

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