The Importance of Narrative in Politics: The Example of Cabinet Manuals in Canada

Sometimes the narrative surrounding an issue and the way that someone presents an issue overshadows the facts of the matter. Take, for instance, the case of the Guide for Ministers in Canada and this issue of cabinet manuals which some political scientists, notably Peter Russell, made topical in the early 2010s purely as a reaction against Stephen Harper’s early dissolution and tactical prorogation in 2008. The narrative which developed around cabinet manuals in the 2010s centered on transparency and accountability: these manuals lay out official interpretations of constitutional conventions, and they will therefore stop “abuses of power!” Here, you must, of course, ignore the fact that cabinet manuals are, by definition, produced by the very governments whom you’re accusing of abusing their authority in the first place. And you certainly must also ignore the fact that those cabinet manuals which do exist all directly contradict your interpretation of constitutional conventions and, in fact, specifically uphold the interpretation that you oppose.

I mentioned in my review of Barry et al’s article last month that even Nick and I had failed to note that Paul Martin released the Guide for Ministers under the title Governing Responsibly in 2003, and that we should therefore credit him, and not Stephen Harper, which having made the document public.  And even here, I have found something new! Jean Chretien released his last edition of the Guide for Ministers – substantively the same document as Governing Responsibly, Accountable Government, and Open and Accountable Government – in 2002.

But the fact that Jean Chretien released a version of the Guide for Ministers publicly in 2002 surely contradicts the narrative of Chretien as the ultimate political operator and supporter of the status quo, a transactional prime minister who deliberately eschewed the grandiose designs of Brian Mulroney and Pierre Trudeau. Even the names that Martin, Harper, and Trudeau gave to their editions of this document are exercises in political narrative. Martin released his edition on the day of his appointment under the title Governing Responsibly as a direct repudiation and criticism of Chretien and an in a futile attempt to distance himself from the Sponsorship Scandal. Harper then called his edition Accountable Government in reaction against both the corruption of Chretien and fecklessness of Martin. And, finally, Justin Trudeau rechristened it Open and Accountable Government to contrast himself to Harper’s introverted secretiveness and opacity.

At the very least, all this shows that we have come to think differently of officialisations like the Guide for Ministers over the last 20 years, in light of the Sponsorship Scandal, our cycle of successive minority parliaments from 2004 to 2011, and again from 2019 to present, and simply because of how social and digital media have changed how we interact with politicians and engage in politics itself. These factors probably all fall under what Barry et al identified as recent post-modern trends in governance.

If I return to this subject more substantively in a follow up article to the pieces from 2012 and 2013, I shall have to take into account what Chretien and Martin did. Even when I wrote my review of Barry et al. last month, it didn’t occur to me to check if Chretien had ever released a version of the Guide for Ministers because I was also thinking along the lines of the narrative that I have in mind of Chretien. This is why a good historian must always seek out and re-read the primary sources, which often contradict all the narratives that we layer on after the fact or prevent us from asking the right questions in the first place.  Sometimes I even need to remind myself of this truism.

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About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
This entry was posted in Constitutional Conventions, Officialization of Convention. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Importance of Narrative in Politics: The Example of Cabinet Manuals in Canada

  1. Rand Dyck says:

    Just as you wrote about Mackenzie Bowell!


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