By: Tyler Sommers on
Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister and MP for Papineau, in a press release on November 13, 2015
Releasing mandate letters is not unprecedented in Canadian politics. Provincial governments have done it before. But it is a first for the feds, so in that context, Trudeau’s statement is true.FactsCan Score: True
Throughout the last election campaign, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals promised increased transparency and that a Liberal government, if elected, would make more government information available to the public.
On November 13, the Prime Minister’s Office announced the “unprecedented step” of releasing all mandate letters, which contain direction to ministers for the upcoming weeks, months and years.
In a press release, Trudeau said, “for the first time in our country’s history, we are making these letters public, so Canadians can hold us accountable to deliver on our commitments.”
What are ministerial mandate letters?
The letters lay out what a prime minister expects ministers to accomplish and sometimes instructions on how to execute. That’s pretty much it.
While they may contain some boilerplate text about the overall promises the government made and references to the principles they’ve committed themselves to (change, growing the economy, helping the middle class, collaboration, transparency, etc.), what really matters is the section outlining what ministers are expected to do and how they are to do it.
The Privy Council Office began the practice of writing mandate letters in the 1970s. They are taken seriously and can be a useful tool for a prime minister when it comes time to checking in on how ministers are performing.
Paul Wilson, an associate professor at Carleton University and a former director of policy under Stephen Harper, said these mandate letters “in large part reflect the party platform, and it can be expected that they will also reinforce commitments in the government’s speech from the throne.”
Releasing the letters are at least as much about communicating to the public as communicating to ministers and – importantly – to senior public servants, Wilson said. He cautioned that this may mean less detail and few concrete timelines.
Is it unprecedented?
Governments of Alberta (not the current one, though), British Columbia, New Brunswick, Ontario, and Saskatchewan have released mandate letters in the past, so this is not completely unprecedented in Canadian politics.
However, prime ministers have not taken this step before.
“Public release of mandate letters is unprecedented at the federal level in Canada,” Wilson said.
Giving Trudeau the benefit of the doubt and assuming he meant an unprecedented step for a Canadian federal government, he is correct.