“The new phone book’s here, the new phone book’s here!”

Those of a certain generation might recall this scene from the movie The Jerk, in which the main character, Navin Johnson (played by Steve Martin), excitedly rifles through the newly published white pages to find his name in print for the first time. “Things are going to start happening to me now,” Navin exclaims.

A similar spectacle plays out in Ottawa among interest groups every time Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publishes mandate letters to his ministers. These missives are combed through carefully in search of any hint that there might be something on the prime minister’s radar that relates to what the organization desires from the government. If the reference can be found, those concerned are secure in the knowledge that their issue is a prime ministerial priority that will be executed. Some may think things are going to start happening now. It’s more likely the gallery got excited about nothing.

A tranche of some 38 mandate letters was dropped in mid- December by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The spectacle then began once again.

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Ministers receive mandate letters following a general election, a throne speech or a cabinet shuffle. They are written by the PMO and the Privy Council Office (the prime minister’s department) to identify the files to which the prime minister attaches priority within the minister’s portfolio.

Publicly released mandate letters are a Trudeau government innovation. Previously, federal mandate letters were classified documents that only ministers, their chief of staff and a handful of senior civil servants saw (deputy ministers received a copy, and assistant deputy ministers would receive excerpts on priorities in their specific domain).

The concept of published mandate letters is in theory an exercise in transparency – the public can see what the prime minister’s priorities are for his cabinet and can hold ministers accountable for them. In practice, they have degenerated into little more than manipulation of the public and further weakening of ministers — yet another nail in the coffin of cabinet government.

The first secret mandate letter I saw was about 20 years ago. It was concise and precise, containing a handful of files within the minister’s portfolio that were important to the prime minister. There was no spin. No superfluities. The letter wasn’t intended to impress – or get press — or convince anyone of anything. It was clear, confidential direction from the PM to the minister.

There were two important subtexts to that economical approach that are fundamental to cabinet government.

First, it was understood that ministers might and should have some priorities of their own. In other words, ministers — not the prime minister or the PMO — were expected to be or to become the authority on the minister’s portfolio and that ministers would make judgments accordingly on what to focus.

Second and related, it assumed that the prime minister and the PM’s advisors could not foresee most of the issues that would occupy ministers throughout their time in office. Former British prime minister Harold Macmillan’s dictum that “events, dear boy, events” drive government agendas was implicit.

All that is out the window with the Trudeau government’s approach to mandate letters.

Trudeau’s dispatches contain a litany of specific and general directives to ministers in an approach that seems to be aimed as much as anything else at convincing interest groups and the media that the government is on top of all these many files. In other words, the letters are largely an exercise in public relations and stakeholder management, rather than serious statements of priorities or plans for governing.

The finance minister’s new mandate letter, for example, contains 51 items she is expected to deliver in a minority government that likely won’t last more than two or three years if history is any guide. The minister of health’s mandate letter contains 30 decrees from the prime minster; the minister of foreign affairs, 26; the minister of Canadian heritage, 33, etc.

In addition to the PR value of covering the policy waterfront, the voluminous content is indicative of a prime minister who seems to see himself and his office as the experts on every department and agency of government, with little trust in the judgment of ministers to run those portfolios. Ministers, it seems, are not to have ideas of their own about what they might consider important issues within their area. Ministerial time and effort are to be consumed on the hundreds of “priorities” assigned to them by the prime minister and his office.

But it is all a bit of a ruse.

Most of the bullet points in the mandate letters will not be delivered during this government, and Trudeau and his team know this. They know perhaps better than any recent government – given their experience through two years of pandemic that knocked them completely off their agenda – that Macmillan’s wisdom of 60 years ago is even more relevant today. Namely, events drive government agendas more than carefully constructed priority lists.

In other words, things are not going to start happening on most of the commitments in those 38 mandate letters.

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Eugene Lang
Eugene Lang is assistant professor at the school of policy studies at Queen’s University. He is a senior fellow with the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History, Trinity College, University of Toronto; and a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. 

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