Whose Mess Is It? How Cabinet Government Assigns Blame in the Vance Affair

We've been avoiding the controversy around Jonathan Vance, the former chief of the defence staff. This is hardball politics and it's a little outside our comfort zone. But two opinion pieces, back-to-back (here and here), convinced us to weigh in. They highlight a critical issue around cabinet government that we think needs further airing.While everyone agrees that the Vance affair raises an accountability issue, there is little agreement on who's accountability is in question: defence minister Harjit Sajjan, the prime minister's chief of staff, Katie Telford, or Justin Trudeau.The opposition parties are determined to push accountability as far up the chain as they can. They say they are just “following the facts” – which lead not only to Sajjan, but also Telford and, possibly, Trudeau.Except, facts don't really speak for themselves. What they “say” depends on how they are organized and interpreted and there is always a “lens” through which we view them. Often the real debate is over which lens is the right one, and that's exactly the issue here.Cabinet government is one lens. It says that a minister is answerable for what happens on their watch and John Ivison draws on this principle to interpret the facts one way.Sajjan, he notes, had long-standing ties with Jonathan Vance. Appointing Vance to the most senior position at Defence – with responsibility for acting on the Deschamps report to reform the sexualized culture – was a mistake.Ivison concludes that “Sajjan's partiality seems to be an open and shut case of a minister failing in his duty of accountability.” It is therefore wrong to blame Telford.However, cabinet government is not the only lens through which the facts can be viewed. Andrew Coyne insists that ministerial accountability reflects “nostalgia for a system of government that no longer exists. Ministers have long since ceased to hold any independent brief beyond carrying the can for decisions made at the centre: in the Prime Minister's Office.”In this view, cabinet government is a quaint fiction. Real decisions are made in the PMO, and that is where the accountability for them should rest. But what does this involve?Experts usually distinguish between two different aspects of accountability: answerability and blame. Answerability is the responsibility to report to superiors on one's responsibilities. Typically, this includes answering questions about them, including any issues or problems.Answerability may also include the assignment of blame for issues, though often it does not. Blame is assigned when a minister or official fails to perform their duty adequately – and that is the question being raised around Telford.The opposition assumes that if Telford received reports about improprieties around Vance, she had a duty to act on them. In fact, this makes sense only if we assume with Coyne that cabinet government is dead, and that all decisions of consequence are made in the PMO.In such a world, the PMO would be directly responsible for everything the government does, and therefore obliged to intervene on every problem. While many people – including many in the Liberal Party – believe the government is too centralized, no one really thinks that this is how it works. The number of departments and agencies, and the thousands of initiatives under way at any time, make this impossible.Delegation of responsibility to ministers – cabinet government – is still very much alive. In this system, the prime minister (and his/her officials) must agree to permit ministers to make mistakes, simply because decision making involves taking risks. That is the price the prime minister pays for cabinet government.Ministers however also pay a price for their autonomy: they are not only answerable for their responsibilities but can also be blamed for them.In terms of the Vance affair, this compact between the prime minister and his cabinet means that, while Telford (who represents the PM) may have received information about improprieties around Vance, she was not necessarily responsible to act on them. She may rightly have assumed that it was the minister's responsibility to take the appropriate action. If so, as Ivison concludes, the blame for any failure to act belongs elsewhere.Finally, to give Coyne his due, while in opposition, the Trudeau Liberals vigorously opposed Stephen Harper's highly centralized leadership style and promised to renew cabinet government. Few people feel this promise has been fulfilled.Perhaps the Vance affair will remind everyone why cabinet government is important.Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate at the Institute on Governance and an internationally recognized expert on public engagement, governance, and policy development. For more, visit his website at: www.middlegroundengagement.comAndrew Balfour is Managing Partner at Rubicon Strategy in Ottawa.