Mandate letters

Since November 4 and the swearing in of a new government, change in Ottawa has been immediate.  It is as if a weight has lifted. More people are smiling.  Of course, believing that any government will keep its promises is a bit like getting remarried – it is a matter of hope triumphing over experience.

One of the most encouraging signs of significant change has been the release of the letters of mandate to all of the incoming Cabinet ministers.  These letters are typically sent by prime ministers to each member of cabinet to set out their expectations.  The letters to members of Privy Council are like most things associated with Privy Council –privy, i.e. “secret.”

For the first time in Canadian history the letters of mandate have been made public.  The letters are all posted on the prime minister’s office website. (Read them for yourself. I can only do a brief summary here.)

They all follow the same format.  The majority of the text in each letter is identical.  Each minister has been instructed to deliver a new level of openness and transparency.  Each letter mentions climate change as a priority.  Each highlights the importance of a new relationship with indigenous peoples:

“It is time for a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples, based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership.”

Each letter sets out a high bar of expectations for ministerial accountability, ethics and willingness to collaborate closely with members of the Liberal Caucus, Opposition Members of Parliament, the public service, citizens, civil society, organized labour, business and stakeholders, including charities.  Specific language informs ministers that they are expected to be available to journalists, who “by asking necessary questions contribute in an important way to the democratic process. Your professionalism and engagement with them is essential.”

The impact of the instructions to engage with reporters has already thrown the press gallery for a loop.  Reporters can no longer keep up with the accessibility of multiple Cabinet ministers available for interviews and scrums several times a day. “This will take some getting used to…” they mutter apologetically after missing a planned interview with me due to an unplanned ministerial scrum.

Each letter also contains a specific mandate unique to the departmental scope under a minister’s direction.  Most of them are very encouraging.  Only one minister has a letter of mandate virtually unchanged from the previous government.  The Minister of International Trade is to press for CETA and TPP. Clearly “real change” has not changed the neo-liberal agenda for trade and globalization.

The new mandates for support for science (in many letters, but especially in environment, fisheries, business and innovation and, of course, in the Ministry of Science) has been confirmed by the instructions delivered last week to all government scientists that they are all free to speak publicly to media or anyone without having to obtain permission.

The Minister for Environment and Climate Change has an overarching mandate “to take the lead in implementing the government’s plan for a clean environment and a sustainable economy.  Your key priority will be to ensure that our government provides national leadership to reduce emissions, combat climate change and price carbon. ”

Not surprisingly the first order of business is to develop a new climate plan and attend COP21. Unfortunately, the mandate continues, as did the Liberal platform, to sequence the development of a new target for carbon reductions after the COP21 negotiations end.  I continue to hope that the fact a First Ministers Conference on climate will take place November 23 could allow consensus for a new target before the negotiations open on November 30.

Minister McKenna has a mandate to fix many of the laws wrecked by the previous government, in conjunction with other ministers.  As the letter is worded: “immediately review Canada’s environmental assessment processes to regain public trust- and help get resources to market and introduce new, fair processes…”

It would be more appropriate to state the environmental assessment process was to serve the purpose of protecting the environment, rather than to “help get resources to market.”

Speaking of which, the Minister of Transport, Mark Garneau, is responsible for placing a moratorium against oil tanker traffic on BC’s Northern Coast, signaling the official death knell of Enbridge project.  (Of course, with Keystone cancelled and with Enbridge scrapped, we will have a fight to prevent Energy East and Kinder Morgan expansion.)

There are promising commitments to democratic reform, including moving away from First Past the Post, to repealing parts of C-51 and the Fair Elections Act, restoring the Court Challenges Programme, creating rules to prevent abuse of prorogation and omnibus budget bills, and re-negotiating the Canada Health Accord.  All of this is encouraging.  None should be taken for granted.

But, I’ll admit it. It does feel like “sunny ways.”

Originally published in Island Tides.