The Cabinet of Canada plays an important role in the Canadian government in accordance with the Westminster System.
A council of ministers chaired by the Prime Minister, the Cabinet is the senior echelon of the Ministry. (The terms "Cabinet" and "Ministry" are sometimes used interchangeably, a subtle inaccuracy which can spark confusion. All members of the Ministry also currently members of Cabinet, but this is not always the case.) Technically, the Cabinet is a committee of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada; in practice, it is actually the executive committee of the Canadian government.
Slightly fewer than forty Ministers of the Crown and Ministers of State presently comprise the cabinet proper. Each minister is not only responsible for advising the Prime Minister and other ministers on any and all political matters, but generally administers one or more specific portfolios.
Ministers of the Crown are in most cases the formal head of a corresponding federal department or agency, although there are exceptions: positions such as the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and the President of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada have no corresponding department, while some Ministers of the Crown (such as the Minister for International Cooperation) head agencies under the umbrella of a department run by another Minister. While the Prime Minister may name someone to Cabinet as a Minister of the Crown without portfolio, this has not been done since 1978.
Ministers of state, often dubbed "junior ministers," are assigned specific responsibilities on a more ad hoc basis, which they fulfil from within a department under a full minister. The portfolios of ministers of state are considerably more transient, as positions may be created and dissolved to suit specific short-term government priorities or the specific qualifications of candidates without alterations to the departmental structure. In recent years, prime ministers have occasionally named individuals as minister of state but not specified any particular responsibilities, effectively making them ministers without portfolio. Unlike many other Westminster-model governments, ministers of state in Canada are full members of Cabinet rather than members of the Ministry outside it; this has the effect of making the Canadian Cabinet considerably larger than its British equivalent, despite the fact that the British Ministry has a total membership far in excess of the Canadian version. secretaries of state, who were members of the Ministry but not the Cabinet, fulfilled most of their tasks carried out by ministers of state from 1993 to 2003; consequently there were only a handful of ministers of state during this time.
Parliamentary Secretaries also assist members of Cabinet, usually with their duties answering questions in the House of Commons. While they have been members of the Privy Council since 2003, they are members of neither the Cabinet nor Ministry.
Deputy Ministers are neither MPs nor Cabinet Ministers but are the senior civil servant in a governmental department and assist the Minister both by giving non-partisan advice and by assisting in the administration of the department. The chief civil servant who both leads the other deputy ministers and provides non-partisan advice to the Prime Minister is the Clerk of the Privy Council.
The Prime Minister often assigns a minister to be responsible for a specific problem or initiative that may cut across departmental boundaries. This is usually described as having the <situation> file.
Different positions have widely varying levels of prestige. Unquestionably the most important minister is the Minister of Finance. Other high profile ministries include National Defence, Foreign Affairs, Industry, Justice, and Health.
Unlike the United States Cabinet, the size and structure of the Canadian cabinet is relatively malleable, with the number of ministers and their titles generally selected by the Prime Minister within a relatively broad legislative framework. Fairly substantial changes, including the realignment of certain departments, can be carried out without even the need for legislation. The slate of cabinet positions tends to be substantially restructured periodically, with the last major period of realignment occurring from 1993 to 1996.
Throughout the 20th century Cabinets had been expanding in size until Brian Mulroney's government, which hit the 40-minister mark. A reduction in the number of departments initiated by Kim Campbell began to reduce this number, and Jean Chr tien excluded approximately 10 members of the Ministry from the formal Cabinet, so that by 1994 there were only 23 members. This number has crawled upwards again, and when Paul Martin reincorporated all members of the Ministry into his first Cabinet, it again resulted in the figure of 39 being reached. The number 40 appears to be something of a psychological barrier to further expansion. Cabinet membership stands today (2005) at 38.
Nominally appointed by the Governor General the Cabinet is in practice selected by the Prime Minister. The selection of a cabinet is an extremely complex affair. There are a large number of conventions that must be met. There is usually a minister from each province in Canada, with a member taken from the Senate if there are no available Members of Parliament (MPs). Visible minorities must be represented and as many women as possible should be included. Interest groups that support the government also need to be appeased. Each member of the governing party desires a cabinet position and there are always some members that feel embittered at being passed over. The process is difficult and one of the most important decisions a Prime Minister must make. John A. Macdonald once half-jokingly listed his occupation as cabinet maker.
As dictated by convention, members of Cabinet are held accountable for their decisions by the elected House of Commons. This means cabinet ministers are expected to introduce and defend new legislation regarding their portfolio within the Commons and answer questions on their job performance from the Opposition. Consequently, there is a traditional expectation that members of Cabinet also sit as elected MPs. Cabinets are generally appointed from amongst the governing party's pool of MPs; should a prime minister appoint a cabinet minister from outside Parliament, it is expected that the individual acquire a seat within a reasonable time or resign. This can often be accomplished by means of a by-election. See also responsible government.
The cabinet has immense amounts of power in the Canadian system, as on account of a fairly weak legislature almost all bills proposed by the Cabinet are enacted. Combined with a comparatively tiny proportion of bills originating with individual members of parliament (Private Members' Bills), this leads to Cabinet having almost total control over the legislative agenda of the House of Commons.
It is within Cabinet that many of the most important debates on Canadian policy take place. All cabinet meetings are held behind closed doors and the minutes are kept confidential for thirty years. Cabinet members are forbidden from discussing what occurs in cabinet meetings. Decisions made in cabinet must be unanimous, though this often occurs at the Prime Minister's direction. Once a decision is made all Cabinet members must publicly support it. If any of these rules are violated the Minister is usually removed by the Prime Minister. If the disagreement within the cabinet is strong a minister may resign, as did John Napier Turner in 1975.
Cabinet itself is further divided into committees. The Treasury Board is one of the most important, as it oversees the expenditure of government money within every department. Since 1966, a specific minister has been named President of the Treasury Board, owing to the especially taxing nature of the duties associated with chairing it and supervising the related bureaucracy. Other committees currently include the Aboriginal Affairs, Canada-U.S., Domestic Affairs, Global Affairs, Government Operations, and Security, Public Health & Emergencies. There is also an Expenditure Review sub-committee of the Treasury Board. Each committee chaired by senior minister whose own portfolio normally intersects with the mandate of the committee. Important committees are chaired by the Prime Minister or the Deputy Prime Minister. A Priorities and Planning Committee, or "Inner Cabinet," has been sporadically utilized; in recent years Jean Chr tien did not strike one, while Paul Martin briefly brought it back before eliminating it once again. During the Chr tien Ministry, the number of cabinet committees was greatly reduced, however they returned to a more "normal" alignment when Paul Martin took office.
Opposition shadow cabinets
Each opposition party appoints what is known as a Shadow Cabinet, with each of its members "shadowing" one or more cabinet portfolios. The Official Opposition Shadow Cabinet is especially relevant, as it is seen as a "government in waiting." There is also a Bloc Qu cois Shadow Cabinet and a New Democratic Party Shadow Cabinet.
The inaugural Cabinet of the 27th Ministry was sworn in December 12, 2003. The last cabinet shuffle occurred on January 14, 2005.
See also: List of Canadian Parliamentary Secretaries
- Reference to current cabinet ministers (http://www.parl.gc.ca/information/about/people/key/CurMin.asp?Language=E)