Mandate Letters

Well, hello there. It’s been a while. I’m sorry about that. I am hoping to be more active on the site. While I haven’t been posting too much, I have been tweeting and retweeting @FromEhtoZ and on the Facebook fan page of the same name.

At any rate, stay tuned for a tutorial on the senate coming soon. In the meantime, check out the below post:


Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced earlier this week that her government would release Ministers’ Mandate Letters for all 30 ministries. This is part of the government’s overall commitment to accountability and transparency and is part of the Open Government initiative. Thursday’s news release issued after a Cabinet meeting in Sudbury officially made those letters public.

These documents are typically held in confidence in the Cabinet convention and are not usually released, or at least not for a long period of time (by tradition, Cabinet records are released after thirty years, though some may be accessed through a Freedom of Information requests after twenty for a charge of $5.00 each).

But what is a mandate letter and what is its purpose? A mandate letter is, well, a letter, from the premier (or prime minister at the federal level) to his or her minister. The letter outlines what the premier wants to the minister to do or accomplish over a set period of time (over a four year term, for example), though the exact timing is not always made clear. It is the official authority to do something: create a policy, develop a program, form a strategy, consult stakeholders, make changes to legislation or regulation, establish a board, agency or commission and so on. Each minister (and associate ministers in the case of Ontario) will get one.

In some cases, ministers may ask their boss to include something that the minister is interested in pursuing, a pet project or a personal focus, to their mandate letter.

Ontario is not the first province to publicize and post Cabinet mandate letters. It follows British Columbia, Saskatchewan and most recently Alberta in releasing these usually confidential documents. At the moment, federal mandate letters remain unavailable.

These letters will flow from the priorities and agenda the premier sets for a province, from her concerns and even prescribes the ways in which she would like the minister to work (eg. Work with stakeholders, municipalities and the public).

These documents are important, because they are like instruction manuals for how the minister will work in the coming years, how he or she will give direction to public servants in his or her ministry and the tone and ways in which the ministry will fulfil the mandate.

The minister will work with his or her deputy minister (the senior pubic servant in the ministry) to ensure that policy direction, priorities and flow down throughout the ministry and that public servants can begin working on various projects, initiatives, programs and policies which will help to fulfil this mandate.

It is important to note that mandate letters do not, and cannot cover everything. For instance, they do not cover “business as usual”- the day-to-day minutia, tasks and duties public servants carry-out to fulfil the administrative mandate of ministries.

Explaining the Supreme Court Ruling on Marc Nadon

Back in February, I wrote a post on the problem with Marc Nadon’s appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada. Friday, March 21st, the Supreme Court of Canada issued their ruling on the Reference Case posed to it by the Governor in Council (essentially, the prime minister and the Cabinet).

Marc Nadon’s appointment to the Supreme Court has been deemed unconstitutional, and his appointment to this country’s highest bench has been declared void. Continue reading

Why Liberal Senators Are Not So Liberal Anymore

On January 29th, 2014, Justin Trudeau, federal Liberal Party leader emerged from a meeting with his Senate caucus members and announced that these 32 senators would no longer be Liberal senators; that they would no longer be a part of the National Liberal Caucus – which is typically composed of both elected Liberal members of parliament and appointed Liberal senators. Instead senators would now sit as independents in the Upper Chamber, would not attend the weekly Liberal caucus meetings and would not be allowed to help party fundraising efforts. Funnily enough though, these senators would still be members of the Liberal party- there was no getting around that!

Mr. Trudeau justified his surprising decision saying that he wants the Senate to be a non-partisan House of parliament, independent of the prime minister’s (and supposedly other party leaders’) reach, to remove party politics from the troubled Upper Chamber.

“If the Senate serves a purpose at all,” Mr. Trudeau said, “it is to act as a check on the extraordinary power of the prime minister and his office, especially in a majority government” and that party structures “interferes with this responsibility.”

Of course, we know from previous posts on the Senate, that Mr. Harper’s government has been trying to reform the Senate and is now awaiting a response to the government’s reference case from the Supreme Court of Canada to determine how and whether the government can make its proposed changes. At the same time, Mr. Harper has increased the number of Conservative senators by filling vacancies via appointment.

But, what does Mr. Trudeau hope to accomplish with this move? Continue reading

The Problem with the Nadon Appointment

Along with senators, cabinet ministers, and really, the governor general, the prime minister acting on behalf of the government also appoints judges to various levels of the judicial system through the Governor In Council process (which we will get into at another time). The most important of these judicial appointments are the ones to the Supreme Court of Canada, the highest court of the land, the final court of appeal and the interpreter of the Constitution.

By why all the fuss with this appointment? What makes this one any different than previous appointments? That is what we will be talking about in this post. Continue reading

Michael Chong’s Reform Act, 2013

Michael Chong, MP for Wellington-Halton Hills, introduced a Private Member’s Bill (PMB) in the House of Commons on December 3rd. The bill proposes to change the way the party leader interacts with his or her caucus essentially providing the caucus with more power and authority as a collective entity.

Whereas in the current context, ordinary MPs have only as much influence over their party’s agenda as an individual leader allows, the new bill would ensure that the party leader retains the confidence or his or her MPs. If they cannot, caucus would have the power to bring about a vote to remove the leader [1]. Britain and Australia already has something similar in place [2].

The bill has generated an usual amount of buzz given that most people pay little to no attention to PMBs.This is because such bills typically introduce or amend (change) existing legislation or deal with obscure matters, particularly those which affect the representative’s riding. Such bills usually have little chance of passing into law as they don’t typically enjoy the government sponsorship or support which would ensure passage. They also take a long time to go to second reading, never mind making it to a committee for study.

This one is different though, Continue reading

Senate scandal Update – November 3rd

A few weeks ago, I wrote, a post outlining the Senate expense scandal. There, I briefly outlined the issue by stating that the problem was essentially about senators making inappropriate claims for housing allowances and other expenses.

Since then, the situation has escalated with the Conservatives (Tories) in the senate introducing a motion to suspend senators Duffy, Brazeau and Wallin without pay and without access to benefits. This debate of the motion has played out over the past week and a half with intense media coverage and is expected to continue into the week of November 4th,.  The situation has hung over the Conservative party convention that took place this past weekend.  (As an aside, this convention was originally scheduled back in June in Calgary but was cancelled due to the floods, which ravaged much of Alberta.).

Why is this significant? Continue reading

What’s the deal with the Canadian Senate Scandal?

This post comes ahead of a tutorial on the Senate, part of a series on the branches of government. With the Senate expense scandal likely to remain part of the news cycle until such another major event pushes it to the back burner, I thought it important to explain what all of the fuss is about for those who aren’t familiar with the issues surrounding this parliamentary body and all the fuss with it.

The Senate is quite a source of controversy on a good day, never mind when the actions of senators make headlines. In fact, it could be argued that controversy is at the foundation of this chamber. The Senate is one of three parliamentary institutions at the federal level along with the House of Commons and the Crown as we’ve learned in previous tutorials. Continue reading

What’s different about this prorogation?

Prime Minister Harper today announced his intention to seek prorogation of the federal parliament. This would mean that instead of returning on September 16th, the House of Commons would return in October.

However, instead of simply resuming activities as it was before the summer break, a prorogation resets parliament, resulting in a new session. A new session requires a new Speech from the Throne.

Commentators had made this prediction a while ago ago, that prorogation was a necessary step to also reboot a struggling Conservative party bogged down by the Senate expense issue while also giving the new ministers from the recent Cabinet shuffle, a chance to get a little more comfortable in their new roles.

Any mention of prorogation, which has since entered into the lexicon of ordinary Canadians as something negative since Mr. Harper’s 2008 and 2009 prorogations first generated controversy (among other disquieting uses of the practice), is sure to generate some suspicion. However, this time Mr. Harper is bound to find many more supporters and much less dissent than his previous two requests. Why? Continue reading

Like a Family Reunion: The Council of the Federation and Its Significance

This week, you may have heard about a meeting taking place in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a meeting of the Council of the Federation. It’s a pretty big deal as political meetings go. It is an inter-provincial council made up of provincial and territorial first ministers: the premiers.

Why is it significant? Well, it’s a time for all of the provincial executives to get together to discuss the significant issues facing the country and particularly those issues which have implications for the provinces, to debate policy, to form contacts and make deals with each other, and it is also an opportunity for the premiers to get together and talk strategy. Continue reading