Cabinet Solidarity in the Canadian Government

Why Canadian Ministers Present a United Front to the Public

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In Canada, the Cabinet (or Ministry) consists of the prime minister and various ministers who oversee different federal government departments. This Cabinet operates under the principle of "solidarity," meaning that the ministers may disagree and state their personal opinions during private meetings, but must present a unified front on all decisions to the public. Thus, the ministers must publicly support the decisions made by the prime minister and the Cabinet as a whole. Collectively, the ministers will be held accountable for these decisions, even if they do not personally agree with them.

The Canadian government's Open and Accountable Government guide provides Cabinet ministers with their roles and responsibilities. With respect to solidarity, it states: "Confidences of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada, more commonly referred to as 'Cabinet confidences,' must be appropriately safeguarded from unauthorized disclosure or other compromises. The Cabinet’s collective decision-making process has traditionally been protected by the rule of confidentiality, which enhances Cabinet solidarity and collective ministerial responsibility. Confidentiality ensures that Ministers can frankly express their views before a final decision is made. The Prime Minister expects Ministers to announce policies only after Cabinet decisions are taken, in consultation with the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office."

How the Canadian Cabinet Reaches Agreement

The prime minister oversees decision-making in the Cabinet by organizing and leading Cabinet and committee meetings. The Cabinet works through a process of compromise and consensus building, which leads to a Cabinet decision. The Cabinet and its committees do not vote on issues before them. Instead, the prime minister (or committee chairperson) “calls” for the consensus after the ministers have stated their views on the matter under consideration. 

Can a Canadian Minister Disagree With the Government?

Cabinet solidarity means that all members of the Cabinet must support Cabinet decisions. In private, the ministers may voice their opinions and concerns. However, in public, the Cabinet ministers cannot disassociate themselves from or repudiate the decisions of their Cabinet colleagues unless they resign from the Cabinet. Additionally, Cabinet ministers must present their opinions during decision-making, but after the Cabinet makes a decision, the ministers must maintain confidentiality about the process.

Canadian Ministers May Be Accountable for Decisions They Don't Agree With

Canadian ministers are held jointly accountable for all decisions of the Cabinet, so they may have to answer for decisions they were personally against. Additionally, the ministers are individually responsible and accountable to Parliament for all acts by their respective departments. This principle of "ministerial accountability" means that each minister has ultimate responsibility for the proper functioning of his or her department and all other organizations within his or her portfolio. In a situation where a minister's department has acted inappropriately, the prime minister may choose to reaffirm support for that minister or to ask for his or her resignation.