Manitoba History: Review: Christopher Dunn, The Institutional Cabinet: Governing the Western Provinces

by The Right Honourable Edward R. Schreyer

Number 30, Autumn 1995

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Christopher Dunn, The Institutionalized Cabinet: Governing the Western Provinces. Montreal and Kingston, McGill-Queens University Press, 1995, 293 pp., index, bibliography. ISBN 0-7735-1283-7.

Christopher Dunn, currently Assistant Professor of Political Science at Memorial University of Newfoundland, has written a very readable study of the intricacies of government administration as seen through the operation of its central institution, the Cabinet. His insights are particularly good with reference to Manitoba, undoubtedly aided by having served, from 1974 to 1977, as a planning and budgetary adviser in a cabinet committee.

Conversely the study, purportedly of the “Western Provinces,” suffers from the serious omission of Alberta, where there has been so much decision-making crucial to economic development planning in all Canada during the study period. This is explained as the result “of the reluctance of Alberta sources in the 1980s to participate fully in interviews and information sharing” (20).

Dunn’s thesis is that during the past half-century the cabinets of the three provinces studied have changed by a magnitude from traditional, departmental “unaided” to highly “institutionalized” establishments which have become more analytical, complex, comprehensive, centralist and collegial, while enhancing the power of the premier, which is a variable, depending on the character and moral authority of any particular premier. It would seem reasonable that the primus inter pares would be more powerful in an unstructured cabinet than in one that is “collegial” but this apparent contradiction is explained as the result of the cluster of committees, some of which have assumed line-department functions, which surround the modern “institutionalized” cabinet and to which the premier has easy and constant access. Furthermore, Dunn claims that no matter what the variable may be, “the one constant difference between the two types of cabinet is that the premier in the unaided cabinet is principally the architect of personnel choice” whereas in the institutionalized cabinet he is the architect not only of personnel choice but of cabinet structure as well” (12).

In brief, in the traditional cabinet the premier appointed the ministers and let them run their departments while in the modern cabinet he (she) exercises more central authority both through the “collegial” nature of cabinet in which issues are shared, and through his position at the pinnacle of the committee structure.

Dunn claims this metamorphosis occurred in British Columbia in the 1970s (under W. R. Bennett) and in Manitoba in the 1960s (during the Roblin-Weir regime). Considering his argument that the “institutionalized” cabinet is not the product of political science theory but of the perceived need for the political-administrative-budgetary-evaluative machinery to introduce new and radical programs, it is understandable that this system should have been pioneered, in Saskatchewan, by the government of T. C. Douglas after its election in 1944.

“Saskatchewan led the country in the development of the machinery of government” (20) because the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation came to office with a pre-determined programme for economic development, provision of social services, full employment and income distribution, while inheriting “the highest per capita debt of any province” (35). The ideology demanded new processes, which demanded new management, which demanded coordination. The constrained financial circumstances of the province demanded, in the words of George Cadbury, “a nexus between planning and budgeting.” Cadbury, scion of the English chocolate maker and a Fabian, was appointed to become the architect of that “nexus” — the Economic Advisory and Planning Board. Its task was to plan toward stated goals and to find the funds to pay for them. From this was to flow an entire cluster of Cabinet Committees to conduct the administration of government, to measure fiscal capacity and to manage the Crown Corporations which were to become salient instruments for achieving these goals.

The tables of comparison are invaluable and save much reading, although a major omission are tables showing the growth of provincial expenditures over the time studied, and the growth of deficits after the late seventies.

Page revised: 26 September 2012