Mandate letters: Optimism turns to realism as Liberals mark two years in power - InfoNews

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Mandate letters: Optimism turns to realism as Liberals mark two years in power

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his newly sworn-in cabinet ministers arrive on Parliament Hill l in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
November 04, 2017 - 6:00 AM

OTTAWA - When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau abandoned his promise to change the way Canadians vote in federal elections, he quietly changed some words in a mandate letter to the new minister in charge of the file.

"Changing the electoral system will not be in your mandate," Trudeau wrote to Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould.

That bit of editing was needed because soon after the Liberals won their majority in 2015, Trudeau decided, in an unprecedented move for a federal government, to publish the traditionally secret mandate letters written to cabinet ministers.

There, for all to see, was a to-do list based largely on what the Liberals had promised on the campaign trail.

Nov. 4 marks two years since his first cabinet was sworn in, and the letters now serve as a way to evaluate the Liberal government as it arrives at the midway point of its mandate.

So far, so-so. The Liberals still have a lot of work to do before Trudeau is able to proclaim he has delivered on all of his promises.

"Canadians expect us to fulfil our commitments, and it is my expectation that you will do your part in delivering on those promises to Canadians," Trudeau wrote in the introduction to each of the letters where he laid out his desired principles for how the Liberals should govern — emphasizing ethics, openness, consultations, teamwork and delivering results.

A few of the items, such as restoring the long-form census, welcoming 25,000 Syrian refugees and creating the Canada Child Benefit, were checked off the list relatively quickly — albeit with some bumps and a lot of money along the way.

Others, such as returning to a balanced budget, remain a work in progress.

New ones, including the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and fixing the Phoenix payroll system fiasco, have been added to respond to cabinet shuffles and unpredictable events.

"It is important that we acknowledge mistakes when we make them," Trudeau wrote. "Canadians do not expect us to be perfect — they expect us to be honest, open and sincere in our efforts to serve the public interest."

Alex Marland, a political marketing expert, said the mandate letters serve as an important accountability tool, reminding the media, stakeholders, the public service and cabinet ministers themselves how the Liberals measure up to the standards they set for themselves.

"It's really good that these things are transparent," said Marland, a political science professor at Memorial University in St. John's, N.L.

The letters force the government to be open about goals that have fallen by the wayside, he noted. And when cabinet ministers got caught up in the cash-for-access fundraising scandal, they were held to the higher bar Trudeau set for ethics in his own Open and Accountable Government guide.

"If that's a danger, I think that's a good danger," said Marland.

Still, Marland also views the public nature of the letters as another sign of the growing concentration of power in the Canadian parliamentary system.

"It effectively says, 'Listen, ministers, you are subservient to the people who put these letters together, who operate around the prime minister in the Prime Minister's Office," said Marland, noting those powerful advisers are not elected officials.

Independent Sen. Tony Dean, a former head of the Ontario public service, said mandate letters can increase accountability behind the scenes too, because bureaucrats no longer have to guess which issues the government considers top priorities.

"Those mandate letters are actually a significant leap forward in giving everybody a sense of where the government is leaning," said Dean, who was named to the Senate on the advice of Trudeau in November 2016.

Dean said making the letters can mean less room to manoeuvre, but he thinks that is better than the strategy of governments deliberately setting out to under-promise and over-deliver.

"Maybe you just put it out there publicly and you say, 'These are the things that we want to achieve and these are the ministers who are going to be responsible for that," he said. "It's risky, because you might change course, but the tradeoff against risk is the accountability for delivery."

— Follow @smithjoanna on Twitter

News from © The Canadian Press, 2017
The Canadian Press

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