David Gamache Hutchison was a
parliamentary intern from 1998 to 1999. This article is based on his research
essay which won the Alf Hale prize as the best paper submitted by the 1998-99
This article looks at the
history, legal status, and experiences of some Parliamentary Secretaries in the
1st session of the 36th Parliament. In a political system where backbenchers
are occasionally referred to as “nobodies,” do these Executive Backbenchers
enjoy a special influence in Canadian governance?
The office of Parliamentary
Secretary, first introduced in Canada during the First World War, provides
government backbenchers with the opportunity to gain some executive and
departmental experience, while also allowing the Prime Minister and senior
ministers to gauge their abilities. Although the position serves this
twofold function, it has also been a useful tool of the government to reward
loyal backbenchers or to restrain irritating mavericks. By co-opting the
latter group, the position restrains those who once sought to challenge the
Previous studies indicate that
the position’s legal status is ambiguous, that its roles and responsibilities
are undefined, and that its impact is unpredictable. This lack of definition
has reduced the influence Parliamentary Secretaries have on Canadian
The Canadian office has its
origins in the British parliamentary tradition. Although it is difficult
to determine clearly how and when the generic position of “Parliamentary or
Under Secretary” came into existence, most observers date its arrival to the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the “monarch’s ministers” were
transformed into the modern British ministerial form of government. As
increased powers were devolved upon Ministers and Secretaries of State, the
Acts of Parliament generally included a provision for an Under-Secretary of
State and often, but not always, Ministers were provided a Parliamentary
Secretary.1 The first mention of a Parliamentary Secretary
position in Canada may have come in 1850, when Robert Baldwin, an earlier
proponent of responsible government, recommended that the Province of Canada
establish a second “political office” to assist Ministers in their departmental
duties. Sir Charles Adderly, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the colonies,
piloted the British North American Act through the British House of Commons in
1867, for the Colonial Secretary Lord Carnavan who sat in the House of Lords.
As Canada entered the twentieth
century and the demands on federal cabinet ministers began increasing, numerous
proposals were made to relieve ministers of some of their duties and to provide
training for potential cabinet ministers. In 1887, Prime Minister John A.
Macdonald established three “sub-Ministers,” with the office of Solicitor
General to assist the Minister of Justice and Comptrollers of Customs and
Inland Revue to assist respectively the Minister of Trade and Commerce and the
Minister of Finance. Concerning these “sub-Ministers” Macdonald said: “It
is also provided that the heads of these sub-departments shall be
Under-Secretaries as it were – to go in and sit, but not to be members of the
Cabinet.”4 Nonetheless, there existed an increasing desire
among Parliamentarians to establish the formal position of Parliamentary
Secretary under the Minister as the British had done with Under-Secretaries for
Secretaries of State and Parliamentary Secretaries for Ministers.3
The development of the
Parliamentary Secretary in Federal Parliament practice was ultimately
attributed to the demands of war. In order to relieve the heavily
burdened Minister for External Affairs and the Minister for Militia and
Defence, Prime Minister Robert Borden appointed Hugh Clark, MP for North Bruce,
and Fleming McCurdy, MP for Shelburne and Queens, as their respective
Parliamentary Secretaries in 1916. In 1918, a third Parliamentary
Secretary was appointed to assist the minister responsible for the Department
of Soldiers’ Civil Re-establishment. These first Parliamentary
Secretaries were appointed by Order in Council and were given an additional
$5,000 per year to supplement their basic salary as Members of Parliament.4
Although Borden’s experiment appeared to be a rather earnest attempt at
replicating the British system, the three Parliamentary Secretary positions
died a natural death with the 13th Parliament, in 1921.
The revival of the Parliamentary
Secretary in Canadian Parliamentary practice did not occur again until the
Second World War. The 1943 Throne Speech outlined the King government’s
need for ministerial assistants. Via Order-in-Council, King appointed seven
“parliamentary assistants.” The motion to provide salaries for the new
… appointed by the governor in council to be a
parliamentary assistant to assist a minister of the crown in such a manner and
to such extent as the minister may determine and to represent his department in
the House of Commons in the absence of the minister therefrom, a salary of four
thousand dollars per annum…5
The wording of this motion and
the ensuing debate first outlined the assumed role and responsibilities of the
new position. King made it clear “that the assistant to a minister would
be expected to help the minister in any way the minister may think his services
are likely to be most advantageous.”6 He also emphasized that
although parliamentary assistants would be persona grata to the minister,
they would not be held responsible to Parliament, as a minister normally would
be. While King was devolving upon the new assistants the ability to act
and speak on behalf of the department and the minister, ultimately it was still
the minister who was responsible to Parliament. Nonetheless, the
roles and responsibilities of the new position may have been as unclear as its
name. In the same speech, King referred to the new position by three
terms: “assistant minister,” “assistant to the minister,” and “parliamentary
This informal, non-statutory
system of appointing Parliamentary Assistants continued until 1958, when the
Conservative government of John Diefenbaker suspended it with the intention of
introducing legislation aimed at giving these appointments a statutory basis.
With the largest majority in the history of the Canadian House of
Commons, the Diefenbaker government passed the Parliamentary Secretaries Act
in 1959. Not only did this legislation give the position its present
name, but it also took steps to formalize the position, which had been so
ambiguous under the King and St. Laurent governments. As provided in
Section 3 of the Act: “The Parliamentary Secretary or Secretaries shall assist
the minister in such a manner as the minister directs.” In the Debate on
the Bill, Diefenbaker said: “… the system is one that will bring about a degree
of apprenticeship for members who are chosen to occupy this high and important
position (cabinet minister).”7 This statement implied that the tasks
of the Parliamentary Secretaries would be ministerial in nature and that
Parliamentary Secretaries could be considered for future cabinet positions.
While the new statutory nature of the position provided a greater degree
of credibility and definition to the position, Diefenbaker then exacerbated the
ambiguous nature of the position in the Bill’s Second Reading debate. In
response to a question from an opposition member, the Prime Minister said:
“The Honourable Member asked whether the parliamentary secretaries are to
be given the status of junior ministers, and without any qualification in this
regard I say that they are not.”8 In essence, Diefenbaker was
ensuring that his Parliamentary Secretaries would enjoy the same limbo that the
earlier parliamentary assistants had experienced and at the same time,
establishing the precedent in which the role of the current Parliamentary
Secretary is based. The 1959 Bill also proposed that Parliamentary
Secretaries should be appointed for a period of twelve months.
In 1971, the Parliamentary
Secretaries Act was amended by Section 25 of the Government Organization
Act. Rather than clarifying the role and responsibilities of the
Parliamentary Secretary, this legislation authorized that the number of
Parliamentary Secretaries holding office at any time was to correspond with the
number of ministers receiving salaries under the Salaries Act.
While it was war that ushered in
the need for Parliamentary Secretaries in the Borden and King governments, one
can conclude that it was the majorities of the Diefenbaker and Trudeau
governments, which reinforced their need. Diefenbaker, with the largest
majority in the history of Canada at the time and Trudeau with the first
Liberal majority in eleven years, may have been motivated as much by the need
to keep backbenchers busy and disciplined, as they were by the need to provide
valuable assistance to over-burdened ministers.
There is only one mention of
Parliamentary Secretaries in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons.
A minister of the Crown, or a Parliamentary
Secretary acting on behalf of a minister, may, in his or her place in the
House, state that he or she proposes to lay upon the Table of the House, any
report or other paper dealing with a matter coming within the administrative
responsibilities of the government, and, thereupon, the same shall be deemed
for all purposes to have been laid before the House.9
There have also been two Speaker
rulings concerning Parliamentary Secretaries. The first, in 1974,
declared that Parliamentary Secretaries did not have the right to ask questions
of the government, as they are responsible for answering for the Government.
The second, in 1984, specified that Parliamentary Secretaries may make statements
on behalf of ministers during House time dedicated to minister’s statements.10
Since the inception of the Conflict of Interest
Code in 1994, Parliamentary Secretaries are held to the same ethical standards
as Cabinet Ministers.
The clear lack of statutory
authority of Parliamentary Secretaries is only equalled by the murky
constitutional footing of the office. Early in this Century, Edward VII
objected successfully that the Colonial Under-Secretary, Winston Churchill, could
not be taken into Cabinet on the grounds that a subordinate should not belong
to the same body as his chief. While Edward made it abundantly clear that
the British Cabinet was out of reach for the young Winston Churchill, he failed
to provide an adequate legal explanation as to why a Parliamentary Secretary
cannot sit at the Cabinet table. The constitutional status of the
Canadian Parliamentary Secretary is equally ambiguous. Is the position of
Parliamentary Secretary part of the Executive? The Ministry? Or are
Parliamentary Secretaries simply a manifestation of ministerial responsibility?
In 1946, A.D.P. Heeney attempted to define the constitutional
status of the Parliamentary Secretary when he declared that King’s
Parliamentary Assistants were neither Ministers of the Crown, members of the
Privy Council, members of a Committee of the Privy Council (Cabinet), nor
members of the Ministry.11 Although Heeney described what
Parliamentary Secretaries were not, he was unsuccessful in noting what they
Parliamentary Secretaries are
given the status of public office holder, a designation they share with
Ministers of the Crown, members of ministerial staff, and full-time Governor in
Council appointees.12 Yet while their status as public office
holder obliges them to practice the same ethics as their superiors, there
is no evidence that this status grants them ministerial powers in Parliament or
in the department.
In defining the constitutional
status of the Parliamentary Secretary, one must first and foremost keep in mind
that Parliamentary Secretaries are not sworn into the Queen’s Privy Council
and, as such, may not subsequently be sworn into office as a Minister of the
Crown and be a part of the Ministry.13 In Canada, the Ministry
and the Cabinet have usually been considered as the same body. As a
result, Parliamentary Secretaries are, in a certain sense, backbenchers who are
connected to Cabinet vicariously through the Minister.
Parliamentary Secretaries are
appointed by Order-in-Council to one-year (usually renewed for a second year)
terms and are awarded annually an additional $10,700 to their basic MP salary.
In 1943 Mackenzie King offered
the following insights into the selection of Parliamentary Secretaries:
In the appointment of parliamentary
under-secretaries it is necessary that responsibility for the appointment must
be shared. The Prime Minister himself has to take that responsibility of
making the appointment, but it is imperative that he should make it in
consultation with the minister who is at the head of the department in
connection with the affairs of which the under-secretary will be called upon to
serve. I have found, in forming governments, that there is no task in the world
more difficult, and in some ways more unpleasant than, having to select some
persons as colleagues, and to pass over others, because of considerations of
which we must take account in this country in most of the appointments we make,
considerations of race, religion, and the like.14
While selection is technically
always the exclusive purview of the Prime Minister, appointments are
co-ordinated by the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff. Ministers are
usually consulted but the selection of Parliamentary Secretaries also serves
the interests and objectives of the Prime Minister’s Office.
Traditionally, the obvious
counterbalance between Minister and Parliamentary Secretary has been religious
and linguistic. However, with an increasingly secular society and an
unusually regionalized Liberal caucus, this is decreasing in value.
Nonetheless, in terms of linguistics, eleven of the twenty-six
Parliamentary Secretaries during the 1st session of the 36th Parliament were
maternal speakers of the opposite official language of the Minister.
There were also examples where the government effectively deployed
bilingual and regional counterbalance. For instance, Eleni Bakopanos, a
bilingual allophone speaker from Montreal assisted the unilingual Justice
Minister, Anne McLellan, in departmental announcements and ministerial press
conferences. In terms of regional counterbalance, the obvious example was
Reg Alcock, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Intergovernmental
Affairs, Stéphane Dion. Considering that national unity is the primary
preoccupation of Minister Dion, a Québécois, it follows logically that a
Westerner would be named as his Parliamentary Secretary. With the rise of
women in the House, an increasing factor in the selection process is gender.
In a House of sixty women (twenty per cent), seven of the twenty-six
Parliamentary Secretaries were women (twenty-seven per cent) and seven out of
twenty-six are of the opposite gender of the Minister.
However, beyond the
considerations to which Mackenzie King referred, the evolution of the Chrétien
government presents additional factors which have played a role in the
selection of Parliamentary Secretaries. As John Godfrey described: “From
my perspective, there have been three rounds of Parliamentary Secretaries.
The first round was characterized as the consolation prize to those of
the class of ’88 who did not make it into cabinet. The second round
(those selected between 1995-97) was characterized by new people who did not
make it into cabinet. Now, the third round is characterized by those who
didn’t make it into cabinet and missed the first two rounds. As the
Parliament matures it’s becoming clearer that there are fewer and fewer places
to put people.”15 Godfrey’s point of view may lead one to
suspect that the office of Parliamentary Secretary is not necessarily being
used as a breeding ground of the bright “up and comers,” but a convenient
instrument to appease those who did not quite make it to cabinet.
For many, the position of
Parliamentary Secretary is a stepping-stone in their parliamentary career.
As Diefenbaker suggested, Parliamentary Secretaries should act as
apprentices and learn the proverbial ministerial ropes. However, when one
considers the trend of the Chrétien government, this does not appear to be the
case. Rather than providing a training ground for the next cabinet
ministers, the position has become a tool to reward the loyal, silence the
rebellious, and to keep the otherwise unoccupied busy.
Many point to the two-year
rotational system. Whether Parliamentary Secretaries are outstanding,
mediocre, or awful, they are essentially guaranteed the position for two years.
In February 1996, all twenty-three Parliamentary Secretaries were
removed, given the same form letter from the Prime Minister, and replaced.
Consideration was not given to job performance, to acquired portfolio
expertise, nor to the working relationship that had been developed between the
Parliamentary Secretaries and the Ministers. Accompanying this first
major purge of Parliamentary Secretaries, was a PMO press release which stated:
The Prime Minister has adopted
the practise of previous governments of completely rotating Parliamentary
Secretaries. “We have such an abundance of committed and talented MPs in
the Government Caucus that I believe it is important to give as many of them as
possible a chance to gain this valuable executive experience,” said the Prime
As Table 1 displays,
since the inception of the office, it has generally been the rule that
Parliamentary Secretaries only serve between one and two and a half years.
Yet, despite the evidence that tradition reinforces the practice of the
Chrétien government, is this practice necessarily the best policy? In
interviews conducted in April and May 1998, former Parliamentary Secretaries
alike, offered strong views on the subject.
No. of P.S. Appointments
Some concede that everyone ought
to be given their turn, others argue that the two-year rotational system is an
obvious weakness of the office. Stan Keyes, former Parliamentary Secretary
to the Minister of Transport (1996-98) said: “You’ve built a relationship with
the Minister, respect from the department and expertise in the portfolio.
Then suddenly you’re unplugged and replaced with someone with no
experience. It calls into question the efficiency of government.”
Maurizio Bevilacqua, former Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministers of
Labour and Human Resources Development (1993-96) noted: “If everybody deserves
to have a turn at being Parliamentary Secretary, what does that say about the
value of the office?” Meanwhile, Clifford Lincoln, former Parliament
Secretary to the Minister of the Environment (1993-96) observed: “If it makes
sense for Parliamentary Secretaries to automatically leave after two years, why
not for Ministers, the Speaker or Committee Chairs? It is an artificial
creation, which makes no sense at all. This is why increasingly, square
pegs are found in round holes. In my view, it trivializes the
Parliamentary Secretary structure.” While it is easy to understand the
frustrations of former Parliamentary Secretaries who enjoyed and took pride in
their work, Morris Bodnar provided another perspective on the subject.
“Initially,” he remarked, “ it was clear that there were a few Parliamentary
Secretaries that didn’t belong in that position; after all, with a new
government not all the Members were known. The two-year rotation system
is an excellent device to allow the Prime Minister to remove Parliamentary
Secretaries without offending anyone. Two years is more than enough time
to prove yourself and if you have, you’ll be taken care of in the future.”
There are numerous examples of
Parliamentary Secretaries going on to other important positions. Maurizio Bevilacqua
became Chair of the Finance Committee; Mary Clancy, who served as Parliamentary
Secretary to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration from 1994-96, became
Canada’s Consul General in Boston; John Harvard, who served as Parliamentary
Secretary to the Minister of Public Works in 1996, headed the Prime
Minister’s Task Force on the Western Provinces; Joe Fontana, who served as
Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport from 1993-96, became the
National Caucus Chair; and finally, Peter Milliken, who served as Parliamentary
Secretary to the Government House Leader from 1993-1996, became the Deputy
However, the number of former
Parliamentary Secretaries who have made it to Cabinet remains low. Prior
to the August 1999 appointments of Elinor Caplan (Minister of Immigration),
Maria Minna (Minister for International Co-operation) and Robert Nault
(Minister of Indian Affairs), only four others who had served as Parliamentary
Secretaries since 1993 had been appointed to Cabinet. While seven appointments
is a significantly low number, what remains remarkable is that Prime Minister
Chrétien apparently holds a great deal of personal attachment to the
apprenticeship nature of the office. In Chrétien, the Prime
Minister’s biographer, Lawrence Martin, describes at length the impact that his
stint (1966-67) as Parliamentary Secretary to Mitchell Sharp, then Minister of
Finance, had on his career. Martin writes:
Sharp personally requested
Chrétien as his parliamentary secretary. He liked the way Chrétien
applied himself, with such seriousness and dedication and ambition. These
were the qualities Sharp wanted in an apprentice. Under Sharp’s wing,
Chrétien applied himself with steady devotion. Sharp would never have
another student as dedicated and keen, and Chrétien would never have another
teacher who looked after him so well.17
The Pearson government had
numerous other star Parliamentary Secretaries who rapidly rose to Cabinet.
Prime Minister Trudeau went from being Parliamentary Secretary to Prime
Minister Lester B. Pearson in 1965, to Justice Minister in 1967, and finally to
Prime Minister in 1968. Prime Minister John Turner rapidly moved from
Parliamentary Secretary to Northern Affairs and Natural Resources in 1963 to
Minister without Portfolio in 1965. In the Pearson years, fourteen of the
thirty (47%) Parliamentary Secretaries were appointed to Cabinet. Since
1993, Chrétien has made only seventeen new Minister of the Crown appointments.
Of the seventeen, seven had previously been Parliamentary Secretaries
(Van Clief, Mifflin, Macauley, Bradshaw, Caplan, Minna, and Nault), two had
been Government Whips (Gagliano and Boudria), two had been Secretaries of State
(Christine Stewart and Martin Cauchon), a National Caucus Chair (Jane Stewart),
and another, a backbencher (Andy Scott). Uniquely, George Baker had
served as a Parliamentary Secretary in the 1970s, but until 1999 had remained a
fringe backbencher. Also, in the months leading up to and following the Quebec
Referendum of 1995, the Chrétien government parachuted three prominent Quebec
figures into cabinet. One came from provincial politics (Robillard),
another from the private-sector (Pettigrew), and one arrived from academia
(Dion). Low turnover has been endemic in the Chrétien government and
considering that Parliamentary Secretaries are not always chosen to be groomed
into Ministers, it appears as though Parliamentary Secretaries have stood a
fair chance of advancing to Cabinet.
In describing the responsibilities
of Parliamentary Secretaries, Stéphane Dion, Minister of
Intergovernmental Affairs, wrote:
The role of the Parliamentary Secretary is a
very valuable one in our parliamentary system. Parliamentary Secretaries
are uniquely placed to provide feedback from Caucus to the Executive and
communicate government policy to the Caucus. In addition to liaison with
Caucus, my Parliamentary Secretary has provided me with valuable insight into
the concerns of their constituents and their region of Canada. Of course,
my Parliamentary Secretary also has ongoing responsibilities in the House of
Commons, particularly when I am unable to attend Question Period. 18
While much of the Parliamentary Secretary’s
time is occupied in the House, they also play an important role in committee,
in caucus, and are often give extra-parliamentary duties. Yet, in all
things concerning Parliamentary Secretaries, the scope of their work is at the
discretion of the Minister.
Walther Bagehot has suggested
that without the power to sustain or to dismiss the Prime Minister and Cabinet,
the House would become merely a debating society.19 In many
ways, Bagehot’s words have proven to be prophetic in today’s Canadian Parliament.
Rather than affecting legislation, House debates generally fulfil a
procedural function. Today’s ministers are policy-focussed administrators
and as a result, debates in the House are secondary to this principal function.
While many ministers could be great House orators, in the tradition of
Macdonald and Laurier, most are not, principally because they spend very little
time in the Chamber. Instead, Parliamentary Secretaries serve the
function of moving departmental legislation through the House, while also
covering for the Minister in the handling of Opposition Days, Private Members
Business, questions on the order paper (written questions) and questions on the
adjournment motion (otherwise known as the “late-show”).
Although the rewarding nature of
these occasionally mundane tasks is debatable, they play an important function.
While Ministers are occupied with governing the country, the
Parliamentary Secretary takes care of the routine matters of the House.
In terms of House duties, Parliamentary Secretaries tend to be as busy as
their portfolio dictates.Since Stéphane Dion’s portfolio of Intergovernmental
Affairs does not have heavy legislative responsibilities, Reg Alcock was not
being called upon to deal with legislation. Conversely, Eleni Bakopanos
was the busiest in terms of legislative responsibilities during the first
session. Not only is this a reflection of the importance of the Justice
portfolio, but in her view is due to the priorities of an Official Opposition
that was “elected on a ‘law and order’ platform.”20
In dealing with public bills and
private members bills at Second and Third Reading, Parliamentary Secretaries
work in close co-operation with the Minister’s political advisors, the
Minister’s department, and the Whip’s office. Parliamentary Secretaries
consult these bodies while assembling speaking lists for the debate. In
many cases, Ministers wish to address their legislation at Second Reading,
which will leave the Parliamentary Secretary to speak at Third Reading.
It has also occurred that the Minister does not speak to the legislation
at all, in which case the Parliamentary Secretary is left to introduce it at
Second Reading. Nevertheless, MPs are only permitted to speak to each
piece of legislation once. Typically, on the day of the debate, the
Parliamentary Secretary receives a prepared speech by electronic mail from the
Minister’s department. While Parliamentary Secretaries are encouraged to
personalize the text, the core of the speech is, in practice, left untouched.
Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Secretary also receives talking points and
other speeches from the Department for distribution to government members who
are on the speaking list.
Although Ministers occasionally
attend opposition days, they seldom address Private Members bills and motions.
In both cases, Parliamentary Secretaries are responsible for
co-ordinating the government’s contribution to the debate. Again,
speaking lists are created and the department sends the necessary speeches.
It is important to note that there is a great deal of pressure to fill
the speaking lists; for if a debate collapses, it could lead to a premature
vote and the possibility of a lost vote. This can be challenging, as not
all government members have an interest in the subject matter or are prepared
to speak from the department and Whip’s closely guarded script. Of a more
routine nature are government responses to written questions and the late show.
Written questions are those questions involving a lengthy, detailed or
technical response with which the MP gives forty-eight hours notice of his or
her intention to ask such a question and whether they request the answer to be
given orally. The Parliamentary Secretary routinely submits written
answers, prepared by the Department, to the House and the text appears in
Hansard. However, should written questions not be answered within a
forty-five day limit, they can be dealt with during the late-show (adjournment
proceedings). The late-show takes place at 6:30 p.m. on Mondays,
Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, at which time Parliamentary Secretaries
will respond to expired written questions or to questions that were not
satisfactorily answered during Question Period. As with their
contributions in legislative debate, Parliamentary Secretaries will again
deliver Department prepared statements.
For many Canadians, the work of
their Government amounts to the ten-second sound bites from Question Period
observed on the evening news. From the perspective of Parliamentary
Secretaries, participation in the show that is Question Period remains a
highlight of the job. Question Period provides Parliamentary Secretaries
the opportunity to impress their caucus colleagues and to joust publicly with
the opposition. Of further importance however, preparation for Question
Period also allows the Parliamentary Secretary access to Cabinet strategy,
Ministerial briefs, and departmental tactical meetings. Depending on the
access accorded by the Minister, certain Parliamentary Secretaries are
encouraged to attend Departmental briefing sessions, given a copy of the
Minister’s Question Period book, and attend the daily Cabinet Question Period
preparation meeting co-ordinated by the House Leader, Don Boudria.
Not all Parliamentary Secretaries
can expect equal participation in Question Period. First and foremost,
the opposition dictates the issues to be raised in Question Period. While
the questions are often unpredictable, most are of the “headline news” variety.
Second, not all Ministers equally attend Question Period. For
instance, the portfolios of Foreign Affairs and International Trade require a
great deal of international travel, while many high-profile Ministers
tend to travel across the country making departmental announcements and
attending fundraising events. Third, not all Parliamentary Secretaries will
answer questions directed to their portfolio. Most often with sensitive
issues, Parliamentary Secretaries will defer to the Prime Minister, Deputy
Prime Minister or another senior Minister.
The Parliamentary Secretaries to the Prime
Minister and to the House Leader never answer questions in Question period.
In 1985, the McGrath Report
recommended that the practice of Parliamentary Secretaries sitting on the
standing committee for their portfolio be eliminated. McGrath sought to
empower the House and Private Members. Since committees were viewed as
vehicles of the House and not the Executive, it was deemed unacceptable to have
Parliamentary Secretaries sit on committee as “agents” of the Executive.21
The Mulroney government accepted this recommendation and for several
years Parliamentary Secretaries could only sit on unrelated committees.
However, in 1991, holding a slimmer majority and increasingly aggravated
that opposition critics could sit on their portfolio committee, the Mulroney
government abruptly reverted back to the practice of having Parliamentary
Secretaries play a significant role on their portfolio committee. On June
2, 1999, Reformer, Keith Martin, presented a Private-Members motion, M-634, to
revert back to the McGrath recommendation.
There remain only sixteen
Standing Committees of the House of Commons that are directly related to
ministerial portfolio areas. It is on these committees which
Parliamentary Secretaries play an important role. In committee, the
Parliamentary Secretary acts as the Minister’s advocate. Usually, the
Parliamentary Secretary will advance the Minister’s arguments and absorb the
Committee’s views. The Parliamentary Secretary then takes these views
back to the Minister, who will in turn, respond back to the Committee through
the Parliamentary Secretary. Predictably, this challenging function can
lead to friction between the Parliamentary Secretary and committee members. Furthermore,
Parliamentary Secretaries often act as the acting Whip of the Committee,
instructing government Members how to vote on important matters and ensuring
that there is always a majority for important votes. In addressing this
difficult aspect of the job, Karen Kraft Sloan former Parliamentary Secretary
to the Minister of the Environment (1996-1998) advised: “It is very
important that colleagues understand the pressure that Parliamentary
Secretaries face. It is also important that Parliamentary Secretaries work
sensitively and honestly with their colleagues.” Regardless, on occasion
the unnatural fit of “independent” committees and rigid party discipline in the
Canadian system can cause complications. In this session’s vigorous C-32,
Canadian Environmental Protection Act proceedings in the Environment
committee, Paddy Torsney found herself in such a situation. CEPA,
which underwent five years of development, inter-department struggles and heavy
industry lobbying, was met in committee with the critical perspectives of
opposition members and Liberal environmental advocates Clifford Lincoln, Karen
Kraft Sloan, and Charles Caccia, Chair of the Environment Committee.
Paddy Torsney and the Committee painstakingly negotiated through a
remarkable 560 amendments to the bill.
Although work in the House and
in Committee takes up most of the Parliamentary Secretary’s time, there are
also several “extra-Parliamentary” responsibilities that come with the
position. These extra-Parliamentary responsibilities appear to vary more
than other tasks among the Parliamentary Secretaries. Some Parliamentary
Secretaries are relied upon to be the Ministers advocate and liaison in Caucus.
Despite complaints by Parliamentary Secretaries that their position
silences them in otherwise free-wheeling Caucus meetings, this advocate and
liaison role appears to be important in some cases. An interesting
example is the role that Tony Valeri, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister
of Finance played in the development of the 1999 Budget. It is reported
that although he occasionally contradicted Finance Minister, Paul Martin,
Valeri was used by Martin as a “trump card” in intensive closed door
deliberations. As a Finance staffer noted: “If Paul didn’t like the way
an argument was going, he’d turn to Tony and put him on the spot and say, ‘Well
I think caucus thinks this, so what do you think?’”22 Because
staffers and bureaucrats are barred from Caucus, Tony Valeri played the role of
Caucus authority, if not representative. “Extra-Parliamentary” duties can
also call upon Parliamentary Secretaries to do anything from representing the
Minister at public events in her or his absence, to meeting with lobbyists and
Beyond the more routine nature
of many Parliamentary Secretary responsibilities in the House, the work of
Parliamentary Secretaries in Committee and in “extra-Parliamentary” settings
appears to offer the position more responsibilities and increased participation
in the political debate. Nevertheless, in examining the responsibilities
of Parliamentary Secretaries, it remains evident that the position is used
primarily as a device of the Executive. Moreover, it is clear that
Parliamentary Secretary responsibilities are limited as a means of empowering
these “elevated” backbenchers.
The Future of the Position
If one works exclusively on the
presumption that the strengths and weaknesses of the position of Parliamentary
Secretary are based on the fundamental Minister-Parliamentary Secretary
relationship, then there may be very few changes possible. Although some
would say, as did John Godfrey that “you cannot legislate a better
relationship,” it would seem that more could be done to facilitate a more
productive relationship. Peter Adams was quick to note that “the lack of
institutional memory must be overcome. Should my Minister and I find the
key to the Minister-Parliamentary Secretary relationship, it will be forgotten
and lost as soon as my appointment is terminated.”23 He
suggested that new Ministers and new Parliamentary Secretaries attend a formal
and frank briefing session with former Parliamentary Secretaries in which
expectations, scenarios, and experiences could be shared. While this
initiative would undoubtedly be constructive, it may also ask parliamentary
colleagues to do the impossible – display vulnerability and confide in each
other. A more appropriate approach may be to put the onus on the
Minister, the senior partner of the relationship, to embrace the work of their
Parliamentary Secretary. Speaking on this theme, Anne McLellan observed:
“The Minister must send the message to the political staff and the department
that the Parliamentary Secretary is an integral part of the government team and
in essence, an extension of the Minister.”24 Without question,
the message must also come from the PMO. When the PMO speaks, MPs,
Parliamentary Secretaries, and Ministers listen. Further guidance from
this body, would surely strengthen the position of Parliamentary Secretary.
Dissatisfaction that surrounds
the current method of appointment and the two-year rotational system must be
addressed. Would the position not receive an immediate surge of
legitimacy if the two-year rotational system were removed? Despite the
PMO’s understandable propensity to avoid unnecessary headaches, it would also
be an effective innovation if the PMO undertook a regular review of the work of
Parliamentary Secretaries. The Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, the
Minister, and the Parliamentary Secretary could meet annually to discuss the state
of the working relationship. Parliamentary Secretaries could be permitted
to remain under their Minister for a longer period of time, could be removed
anytime if they are not performing or be transferred to another Minister or
Interestingly, when asked what
changes they would like to see brought to the position, many Parliamentary
Secretaries commented that they require more staff for the workload.
Evidently, since the time of many Parliamentary Secretaries is at a
premium, so is the time of their staffs. The typical MP usually has two
Ottawa-based assistants, who provide administrative and legislative assistance.
It appears that when Parliamentary Secretary responsibilities are added
to the already demanding work of the MP’s office, it can occasionally put
incredible stress on the MP’s resources. This seems to be most pronounced
in the major portfolio areas of Justice, Health, Finance, Industry, and Foreign
Affairs. Indeed, this problem accentuates the fact that, while all Ministers
are equal on paper and all Parliamentary Secretaries are in theory also equal,
their portfolios are not. Ministerial staffs and departmental staffs vary
greatly in size, those of the Parliamentary Secretary do not.
Additional resources for staff would be an
important addition to busy Parliamentary Secretaries.
The difficulty of unequal
portfolios also calls into question the need of every Minister to have a
Parliamentary Secretary and whether some ministerial portfolios could utilize an
elevated Junior Minister. As portfolios tend to be inherently ranked in
importance, perhaps the government’s Executive offices should be tiered
accordingly. While the British Parliamentary Secretary structure is much
different, it may provide a guide of how the Canadian Parliamentary Secretary
position could be altered.
In Westminster, Ministers of the
Crown and Secretaries of State, who share equal power, have the service of not
only Parliamentary Secretaries (or Under-Secretaries of State), but Private
Parliamentary Secretaries (PPS). British Parliamentary Secretaries assist
Ministers, as do Canadian Parliamentary Secretaries, in their parliamentary
work, fulfil a liaison role with caucus and the department, and occasionally
oversee the development of legislation. Although British Parliamentary
Secretaries appear to be responsible for many of the same tasks as their
Canadian counterparts, they are looked up on as Junior Ministers and as a
result, possess more statutory power and responsibility. Also resembling
the Canadian Parliamentary Secretary is the British Private Parliamentary
Secretary. The British PPS fulfil a more informal role in the British
Executive structure. Generally, they are the youngest of the government
MPs, are hand chosen by the Ministers, do not receive extra remuneration, and
play an informal role as apprentice and caucus representative. The
Private Parliamentary Secretary does not speak on behalf of the Minister
in the House and is not viewed as an extension of the Minister.25
Ideally we should adopt a two
tier system of Parliamentary Secretaries. The number of first tier
Parliamentary Secretaries should be reduced to those Ministers who most need
their services and where a Parliamentary Secretary could make a substantial impact
on policy development. These Parliamentary Secretaries would optimally
have a degree of expertise in the portfolio area, be experienced
Parliamentarians, or be bright “up and comers.” Consequently, this
proposal would also call for the addition of “tier 2” Parliamentary Secretaries
to work with all Ministers and Secretaries of State. Like the British
Private Parliamentary Secretary, the Canadian “tier 2” Parliamentary Secretary
would not be paid, would not speak on behalf of the Minister in the House, and
would have an informal relationship with the Minister. This would also
provide “tier 2” Parliamentary Secretaries the opportunity to establish
relationships with Ministers, learn the ministerial portfolio, and gain a
degree of Executive experience. By tiering the Parliamentary Secretary
structure, Ministers requiring busy and vital Parliamentary Secretaries would
be given Parliamentary Secretaries with increased legitimacy, responsibility,
and ultimately capability. Meanwhile, portfolios that are less exigent or
involved would be given the service of more appropriate assistance.
1. See A.R.
Kear, The Parliamentary Secretary in Britain and in Canada (Queen’s
University,thesis, 1965), p. 7
2. House of Commons, Debates, 1887, 190.
3. See Richard Cartwright, Reminiscences (Toronto: William Briggs, 1912)
288, as quoted in W.A. Matheson, The Prime Minister and the Cabinet
(Toronto: Methuen, 1976) 68.
4. J.E. Glenn, “Parliamentary Assistant: Patronage or Apprenticeship?” Fleming’s
Canadian Legislatures (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997),
5. House of Commons, Debates, 1943, 2,342.
6. House of Commons, Debates, 1943, 2, 344.
7. House of Commons, Debates, 1959, 2,187.
8. House of Commons, Debates, 1959, 2, 362.
9. House of Commons, Standing Orders (Ottawa: The House, 1998), SO 31
10. Alistair Fraser, W.F. Dawson, and John Holtby, Beauchesne’s
Parliamentary Rules & Forms, 6th Edition (Toronto: The
Carswell Company, 1989), 122.
11. A.D.P. Heeney, “Cabinet Government in Canada: Some recent Developments in
the Machinery of the Central Executive” The Canadian Journal of Economics
and Political Science (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, August, 1946,
Volume 12, n. 3) 284, 297-8.
12. Office of the Ethics Councillor, Conflict of Interest Code. Website:
13. Peter W. Noonan, The Crown and Constitutional Law in Canada
(Calgary: Shipnoon Publicaitons, 1998), 152-156.
14. House of Commons, Debates, 1943, 2,343.
15. Interview conducted on April 27, 1999.
16. Prime Minister’s Office, Press Release, Febraury 23, 1996.
17. Lawrence Martin, Chrétien, Volume 1 (Toronto: Lester Publishing,
18. Hon. Stéphane Dion, Letter, April 16, 1999
19. Originally published in 1867. Walter Bagehot, The English
Constitution (London: C.A. Wats & Co., 1964), 150-182.
20. Interview conducted on May 25, 1999
21. House of Commons, Report of the Special Committee on the Reform of the
House of Commons, (Ottawa: The House, 1985), 18.
22. Paul Wells, “How the Budget was Born,” The National Post [Toronto],
February 17, 1999, A3.
23. Interview conducted on May 25, 1999.
24. Interview conducted on May 28, 1999.
25. British Cabinet Office, Questions of Procedure for Ministers
(London: Whitehall, 1992), paragraphs 45-48.