Thomas: Why Shandro was spared

Ministers should be held responsible — but increasingly aren’t.

On Thursday, nearly two weeks after many called for Alberta’s Minister of Health to resign because he threatened Albertans for asking questions related to his portfolio, Tyler Shandro was back in public, leading the province’s COVID-19 briefing.

The rationale for keeping the minister? He wants to protect his spouse.

And the ethics commissioner thinks it’s OK if Shandro holds shares in a private health insurance brokerage in a blind trust while he’s got the power to delist public health services, so that Albertans who want to access those services would need… private health insurance.

Many may be left wondering, “What gives? Where’s the accountability?” The problem isn’t that accountability mechanisms don’t exist, but rather that they require political leaders who are willing to enforce them.

I’ve long had concerns about the weakness of Alberta’s democracy. Everything I’ve seen over the past two weeks (and months, to be honest) has exacerbated, rather than alleviated, those concerns.

Which brings me to tuna.

Accountability mechanisms require political leaders who are willing to enforce them.

The tainted tuna controversy of 1985

This is admittedly an odd connection. But folks with long memories might remember how back in 1985, the federal Minister for Fisheries and Oceans knowingly allowed tainted tuna be sold to Canadians. The minister’s rationale for not stopping the tuna from hitting the market rested shakily on grounds of protecting jobs.

Canadians got sick from the foul fish and the minister, unsurprisingly, resigned from their post as a result of their misconduct.

For political scientists, the tainted tuna scandal is the hallmark of a constitutional convention called individual ministerial responsibility. This is an unwritten rule that governs accountability in our system of parliamentary democracy.

Back when government operations were very small, individual ministerial responsibility meant that ministers were responsible publicly for everything that happened in their portfolios, good and bad.

If a civil servant erred, the minister would still take the public fall to ensure democratic accountability, and to ensure stable, non-partisan, professional advice regardless of who wins an election.

With the expansion of the welfare state, this form of individual ministerial responsibility is no longer possible.

Instead, the convention now demands a minister resign in two contexts: If they knowingly erred in their own conduct—as was the case with the tainted tuna—or if their personal conduct damaged their credibility sufficiently to lead a reasonable person, including their prime minister or premier, to lose confidence in their ability to competently manage their appointed portfolio.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, ministers are far more likely to be asked to resign because they embarrassed their government with their shoddy behaviour. Critical scholars observe that this makes ministerial responsibility less about competence and more about partisan gain, electioneering, and saving face for heads of government.

Examples of this include a federal minister who resigned after being overheard talking too freely on a flight about a sensitive issue, and a provincial minister whose party remained confident in him despite allegations of domestic abuse that were ultimately dismissed.

So, what gives?

Given all that, when political scientists heard that Alberta’s Minister of Health threatened Albertans for asking questions about his choices as minister, it was obvious to many of us that the ministerial responsibility convention would be triggered, and the minister would be required to resign.

So why wasn’t he?

Because ministerial responsibility is an unwritten constitutional convention, it’s both impossible to enforce and also corrosive to our democracy, particularly with respect to accountability, when it’s ignored.

There is, of course, precedent for premiers and prime ministers to ignore ministerial responsibility when it suits them. For me, the most explosive case deals with war crimes.

When premiers enforce ministerial responsibility and ask for a minister’s resignation depends on embarrassment.

In November 2009, allegations that Canadian soldiers were knowingly turning over innocent Afghans to local authorities to be tortured hit the news. Peter MacKay, then Minister of Defense, faced a chorus of calls to resign. He never did. Instead, he claimed that no one knew about the torture.

That was a backpedal, as initially MacKay claimed that there was no credible evidence of torture to act on.

Watching this case at the time, I remember the importance of this shift. By claiming he didn’t know about the potential war crimes, MacKay made a point of saying precisely what he needed to technically meet the requirements of ministerial responsibility.

When partisanship matters more

Ultimately, I think when premiers and prime ministers choose to enforce ministerial responsibility and ask for a minister’s resignation depends on embarrassment. Is owning up to the problem more embarrassing than the minister’s behaviour? If yes, then the minister stays.

This is arguably the case for Jason Kenney and Tyler Shandro. If Kenney asked for Shandro’s resignation, he would have to admit that his minister’s behaviour was inappropriate and that concerns about his choices were legitimate.

This is where accountability clashes with other political norms. In Canada we have some of the strongest party discipline in the world. Elected officials are expected to toe the party line in public, even if they have serious reservations about doing so.

Any politician who speaks against that party line typically gets turfed.

The norm is so strong that this holds for small parties in opposition as much as it does for parties in government. There are lots of cons associated with this strong form of party discipline.

Being in the right’ party is more important than good conduct or competent governance.

The big benefit is that parties and governments remain cohesive and united. This helps the public clearly understand their positions, and have confidence in a party’s ability to be cohesive and united under pressure.

When parties and their leaders prize partisan loyalty over accountability, they communicate that being in the “right” party is more important than good conduct or competent governance.

In the long term, this lack of accountability undermines our democracy. If people don’t trust that their leaders will follow unwritten constitutional conventions (like ministerial responsibility), they can quickly lose faith that democratic accountability is at all possible.

A lack of accountability was certainly evident with MacKay on war crimes back in 2009. It’s worth noting Kenney was at that same cabinet table, so it’s not surprising this may be his approach now.

The kamikaze campaign, designed to help Kenney and his government’s approach to the elections commissioner, suggests that admitting wrongdoing is not on the agenda if partisan loyalty can be used as a shield to avoid accountability.

If “but jobs!” wasn’t enough to save a minister for letting Canadians eat bad tuna back in 1985, and if “but security!” wasn’t enough to save a chatty minister back in 1997, then surely none of the rationales we’re being offered are enough to save Shandro from a fit of extreme pique in response to reasonable questions in 2020.

Melanee Thomas is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Calgary.

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