The Trudeau government gives itself a mandate of expectation

Justin Trudeau releases the 30 mandate letters that explain what is expected from each of his ministers

Canada's new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (bottom row C) poses with his cabinet after their swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa November 4, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Canada’s new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (bottom row C) poses with his cabinet after their swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa November 4, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

From this day forward, there shall be no doubt. It has been written down and posted publicly for all to see and now it can known far and wide and understood by all that the minister for small business and tourism is officially and formally expected—mandated, in fact—to “work with” her “provincial, territorial, and municipal counterparts to promote Canadian tourism and strengthen the Canadian brand abroad for tourists.”

So it’ll be all the harder now for Bardish Chagger to claim at some later date that she didn’t think it was particularly important that she do that.

This, more or less, is what accountability looks like.

That particular commitment is one of seven bullet points put down in Chagger’s mandate letter, one of the 30 letters that was sent to Justin Trudeau’s ministers and then released publicly, with some excitement, this afternoon. Finance Minister Bill Morneau was tasked with 27 bullet points. Environment Minister Catherine McKenna got 21. The families and fisheries ministers were next with 19 and 18 bullet points respectively.

All told, there are 380 bullet points. Some are duplicates—tasks that will be shared between two or more ministers–and some are relatively unremarkable and obviously the details will matter for all. But there are any number of potential points of interest, not least being the actual act of releasing these letters. Look over there, it’s parliamentary reform! Oh hey, a proposal to prevent mortgage fraud! The minister of health is charged with “increasing vaccination rates.” The finance minister will “develop proposals to allow a Canadian Exploration Expenses tax deduction only in cases of unsuccessful exploration and re-direct any savings to investments in new and clean technologies.” The minister of justice will “conduct a review of the changes in our criminal justice system and sentencing reforms over the past decade with a mandate to assess the changes, ensure that we are increasing the safety of our communities, getting value for money, addressing gaps and ensuring that current provisions are aligned with the objectives of the criminal justice system.”

And all of that is surrounded with fascinating sentences about what sort of government Justin Trudeau expects to lead.

For awhile Friday afternoon, “ministerial mandate letters” was a “trending topic” in Canada, demonstrating either that democratic engagement has skyrocketed in recent weeks or that the parliamentary press gallery has an outsized influence over the Twitter discussion in this country. Amid the awe and wonder, one of the Prime Minister’s top advisors expressed surprise at the reaction. “It’s amazing that people are amazed the PM has mandated Ministers to implement campaign commitments,” he said.

Indeed, all of the commitments noted above were referenced in the Liberal party’s election platform or during the campaign. But then an election campaign is no time to dwell on such stuff. And now those commitments have been put down on “Office of the Prime Minister” letterhead. And those letters have been proudly posted by the Prime Minister.

That is, in the words of the official news release, “unprecedented”—recent prime ministers have drafted and sent mandate letters to their ministers, but Trudeau would seem to be the first prime minister to release those letters publicly. Several premiers have done so in the past. A year ago, for instance, both Kathleen Wynne’s government in Ontario and Jim Prentice’s government in Alberta did so. But that Justin Trudeau would do something that Stephen Harper did not is still noteworthy.

It is not something Trudeau really needed to do. Probably none of his rivals would have loudly complained if he hadn’t. And one can imagine his predecessor having seen little reason to bother. That government seemed to operate, not without reason, on the understanding that disclosure and elaboration were generally not worth the effort. In 2006, Stephen Harper did release Accountable Government: A Guide for Ministers, an updated version of a document first released in 2003 by Paul Martin. It was a nice gesture, but it might be a bit much to suggest it proved pivotal over the ensuing nine years.

In Trudeau’s case, of course, there are now points to be scored by doing things differently. And tonight and this weekend some decent number of people will hear something about Trudeau doing yet another transparency thing (and perhaps some restating of the nice things the new government is going to do). And the downside, that now these promises have been restated and publicized for future reference, might be limited, either because much of what’s here is basically achievable or because the electorate is fairly forgiving.

“We should be absolutely clear,” wrote Mark Jarvis and Tony Dean this morning in anticipation of these letters, “publicly releasing mandate letters in no way guarantees any change to how government actually functions.” They were referring specifically to the operational organization of government and the public service, but that statement stands as a useful proviso for everything committed to in these 30 letters. These are not guarantees. But it is useful to lay down markers. The Trudeau government has set out what we should expect from it and what it expects from itself. It is at least not yet running away from expectations.

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