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Manitoba History: Book Review: Patrice Dutil, Prime Ministerial Power in Canada: Its Origins under Macdonald, Laurier, and Borden

by David G. Burley
Hamilton, Ontario

Number 85, Fall 2017

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Patrice Dutil, Prime Ministerial Power in Canada: Its Origins under Macdonald, Laurier, and Borden. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017, 412 pages. ISBN 978-07748-3473-5, $89.95 (hardcover)

Criticism of Canadian prime ministers for being presidential (and imperious, if not imperial) in their actions and pretensions has become a commonplace trope for expressing dissatisfaction with unpopular leaders. However, as Patrice Dutil reminds readers in his examination of the historical origins of prime ministerial power, scholars and other observers have long been impressed with the success of Canadian prime ministers “in taking full advantage of unwritten rules and borrowed conventions” to secure reserves of power impressive even by the standards of other Westminister parliaments (p. 4). Within fifty years of Confederation, Dutil contends, the three men who held office throughout, with brief interruptions—John A. Macdonald, Wilfrid Laurier, and Robert Borden—claimed, exercised, and entrenched centralized prime ministerial power. Their success and longevity in office rested less, in Dutil’s view, on their political manoeuvring than on managerial and administrative creativity in “adding new structures, bringing new substance to various processes, and impressing the act of governance with their own style” (p. 5). Their innovations were preserved in an “institutional memory retained by cabinet ministers, high ranking officials, and the press” that benefited their successors (p. 7).

Dutil organizes his argument around three themes: structure, substance, and style. The first refers to the “managerial philosophies and predispositions” that led prime ministers to organize and re-organize areas of responsibility into ministries, departments, and branches. Both constraining and enabling changes were prime ministers’ assessments of the abilities not only of their cabinet colleagues, but also of deputy ministers—the senior civil servants who had to implement and administer government programmes. Prime ministers gave substance to their governance by setting the budgetary priorities. Necessarily involved was the exercise of patronage, especially to staff the “inside public service,” that is, those working in Ottawa. Dutil offers a heretofore underappreciated assessment of patronage: more than a prerequisite for electoral success, it was essential for administrative success, for delivering on promises. By style, he refers to the “human dimension of leadership,” that is, personality, emotion, judgement, risk-taking (p. 12). Macdonald, Laurier, and Borden differed in their building of structures, their substantive initiatives, and their style, but each in his own way secured prime ministerial power.

Macdonald had earned administrative experience and an understanding of structure in colonial governments. The instability of the dual ministries of the Province of Canada no doubt convinced him that a prime minister must centralize authority by assuring that cabinet members were up to challenges of their ministries, by setting cabinet’s agenda, and by personally assuming the most important departments, onerous as those might have been. Until the 1880s at least, he could draw upon able and experienced ministers like Charles Tupper and Hector-Louis Langevin. As well, Macdonald inherited talented and experienced civil servants, most notably Hewitt Bernard and John Langton, from the old united province. Organizationally, the Treasury Board and Privy Council secured Macdonald’s oversight of government and bureaucracy.

In opposition for years, Laurier and Borden lacked Macdonald’s experience upon assuming office, although they had his example. Both were creative and energetic, like Macdonald, although Borden lacked his predecessors’ decisive character. In his first government, Laurier recruited provincial politicians, like Oliver Mowat and William Fielding, for cabinet posts. His initial reliance on their proven administrative talents, however, did not prevent him from setting loose those, like A. G. Blair and Clifford Sifton, who challenged him. Borden was more hesitant and tolerated ineffective management from his ministers for too long. But he was interested in new ideas and, when he acted, he did so boldly. For examples, he replaced ministers not up to the task with commissions headed by businessmen familiar with running complex operations, most notably Joseph Flavelle. He deepened the pool of talent for cabinet by forming a Union government. Both Laurier and Borden, initially suspicious of patronage appointments of their predecessors to the civil service, were pleasantly surprised by the lack of partisanship among their deputy ministers, who discharged their responsibilities with professionalism. All three prime ministers, in different ways, forged lasting structures.

In explaining the substance of prime ministerial power, Dutil first gives consideration to the creation of a meritocratic civil service. Neither Macdonald, nor Laurier, nor Borden easily gave up their power to appoint—a necessary tool in binding both voters and officials to their government. While all three regularly created commissions to investigate the civil service, they resisted fully implementing recommendations to promote a non-partisan civil service. Procedural changes, efficiencies, examinations, and classifications were introduced through the first half-century. But not until 1918, after the experience of war and the non-partisan Unionist government, did Borden introduce a neutral and independent Civil Service Commission. Ironically, “the CSC quickly revealed itself unable to manage the onslaught of work,” Dutil concludes, “and the end result was an exponential growth of paperwork, correspondence, and inefficiency” (p. 193). For a half century, patronage had not been incompatible with merit or effectiveness.

Other substantive contributions to governance revealed themselves in the differing priorities the three prime ministers set for spending. To this end, Dutil presents a comparative analysis of changes in government spending by department. Macdonald and Laurier both spent increasing sums on public works and marine and fisheries; under Macdonald expenditures for Indian Affairs grew significantly, whereas under Laurier agriculture grew the most relatively; for Borden spending for war and diplomatic relations drew more and more funds. Unfortunately, the discussion suffers from an error in the data. Tables 7.7 and 7.8 wrongly list the Laurier government’s expenditure of $104,291 for Indian Affairs in 1908-9, a 92 per cent reduction from the previous year, followed by a 14.9 per cent increase over the next two years. The author concludes, “The Department of Indian Affairs...was shattered” (p. 212). Not so. A million dollar error was made in data collection: the correct figure is $1,404,291, actually a 3.4 per cent increase (Auditor General’s Report for 1908-9, pp. 1–2). Such an obviously anomalous number ought to have provoked a review of the data rather than a false conclusion.

As well, expenditure statements are not budgets, although the author refers to them as such. Expenditures do incorporate spending priorities, but those priorities are distorted by unanticipated costs and various exigencies. Prime ministerial priorities are better presented in the spending estimates submitted to Parliament. Using Indian Affairs in 1907–8 and 1908–9 as an example, the (corrected) expenditures suggest that Laurier gave a slightly higher priority to this area. Estimates on the other hand report a 2.2 per cent budgetary reduction from $1,303,487 to $1,273,960 (which was less than what was actually spent in 1907-8) (Estimates for the Fiscal Year Ending March 31, 1907, p. 4). The variances between estimates and expenditures in this example are not great, but still noteworthy. The question remains: which is a better reflection of prime ministerial priorities?

Strong leaders demonstrated the substance and the style of their power in their management of cabinet and military crises. Macdonald confronted difficulties with experienced ministers such as Alexander Galt, whom he could manoeuvre into retirement with some dignity. Least patient in dealing with difficult colleagues was Laurier who dealt quickly with the insubordinate Joseph-Israël Tarte, who had breached cabinet solidarity. Borden was ineffective and put up with Sam Hughes and mediocre administration too long, a tolerance that helps to explain the ongoing grumbling within his cabinet. In taking Canada into the Great War, Borden had little difficulty given the public’s animosity to German and Austrian aggression. (Perhaps a better example of military crisis management would have been conscription). Lesser conflicts, as Macdonald confronted in the Nile Expedition and as Laurier confronted in affairs of the Empire, provoked more divisive politics and demanded defter management. The three handled crises differently, but all strengthened their positions in doing so.

No clearer marker of prime ministerial style exists than the order-in-council, according to Dutil. In a useful quantitative analysis of these instruments, the author discovers significant differences in style. Macdonald in particular relied on orders-in-council to assure that major undertakings developed as he thought best. Less confident initially, Laurier increasingly relied upon orders, especially for staffing matters. Borden, the least forceful of the three, seldom issued orders personally, leaving that function to cabinet, which in wartime made initiatives in unprecedented areas. Most significantly, the use of orders-in-council “convey[ed] the government’s will, without discussion or dissent” (p. 256).

To understand how prime ministers actually worked, Dutil effectively combines a quantitative analysis of their correspondence with an evocative description of their daily routines. Macdonald, Laurier, and Borden exercised disciplined hard work, even if all, especially Borden, did not relish their tasks. All three combined work and home, entertaining at their residences, and attending to business in their private studies in the morning before going to Parliament Hill for meetings, sessions of the Commons, and more work. Their correspondence, however, differed from one to the other. All handled considerable political correspondence, Laurier more than the others. Firm in his commitments, Macdonald received little policy advice: associates understood that he usually knew what he wanted already. Borden was interested in ideas and welcomed policy advice, as did Laurier to a lesser degree. Macdonald dealt much more extensively with patronage than his successors, while they were more concerned with administrative matters.

Despite its flaws in examining financial priorities, Dutil’s reminder that prime ministers must have administrative and managerial ability to succeed is a welcome corrective to interpretations beguiled by leaders’ visions or charisma, and struck by their ruthless or accommodating political brokerage. As well, his study of the senior civil service extends our appreciation of the contributions of “the Ottawa Men” into an earlier and foundational period and offers a provocative, yet persuasive argument that patronage could produce men of merit. In the end, the critical reader will learn much about the origins of prime ministerial power.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 7 January 2021

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