Miriam, Vanderhoff-Silburt is a former
parliamentary intern. This is a revised version of an article written in 1981
as part of the parliamentary intern program.
Parliamentary secretaries are those Members
of Parliament who occupy what has been described as a "Parliamentary No
Man's Land". They are neither ministers nor ordinary backbenchers; neither
a part of the cabinet nor of the ministry. Parliamentary secretaries have been
attacked as political payoffs by some and praised by others as an on the job
school for future cabinet stars. Some observers have hailed the job as an easy
reward for loyal backbenchers; some see it as a consolation prize to those who
have been passed over for the cabinet for the time being or perhaps forever;
and others view it as an effective way to silence caucus rebels. These mixed
views serve to illustrate the divergence of opinions on the definition of what
parliamentary secretaries are and what their proper role is within the Canadian
Confusion over the definition of a
parliamentary secretary's job description began with the first two appointments
in 1916 and continue to this day. The number of secretaries has steadily grown
throughout the years to the present twenty-seven under Prime Minister Trudeau.1
But it was not so long ago that former Prime Minister Clark was considering
scrapping parliamentary secretaries altogether. In October of 1979 Mr. Clark
described them as "purely decorative" and questioned the rationale
for continuing the tradition of appointing parliamentary secretaries to cabinet
ministers. Instead he talked about easing the burden of cabinet ministers by
naming Junior ministers to handle mini-portfolio's held by some cabinet
ministers. But only weeks later Mr. Clark reconsidered and appointed twenty-two
parliamentary secretaries to senior ministers. "I found out how much value
they can be to ministers during the summer", Mr. Clark said. He admitted
that "there is a real need for help in some ministries".2
Despite some doubts and criticisms, most
observers agree that what a parliamentary secretary does is to take some of the
workload off an already overworked cabinet minister. That is about as close as
anyone has managed in obtaining a precise definition of their duties. Hence,
the practices vary tremendously. Some MPs walk away from their term as
parliamentary secretary with no real learning experiences, while others leave
with a wealth of knowledge on how bureaucracy functions, on how cabinet
functions and how the two interact with each other. Some members have had the
opportunity to participate directly in policy formulation. It is these diverse
experiences which demand explanation. This paper attempts to discern the
various explanations for the confusion surrounding the role of parliamentary
Legislation concerning parliamentary
secretaries did not come into existence until 1959. However, their presence can
be traced back to World War I. In 1912, Richard Cartwright, who served as a
minister under both Mackenzie and Laurier, suggested that "what we need
very much is to have a few posts like the English parliamentary
under-secretary, to which young politicians would be appointed without giving
them cabinet rank."3 Sir Robert Borden, in 1916, appointed for
the first time two positions below cabinet rank including a Parliamentary
Secretary of the Department of Militia and Defence, and Parliamentary
Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs. Later in 1918, a third
parliamentary secretary was appointed to the Department of Soldiers' Civil Reestablishment.
The Borden experiment was short-lived and these positions terminated with the
end of the war.
In 1921, when Mackenzie King became Prime
Minister he appointed a Parliamentary Under-Secretary for External Affairs.
None of his colleagues wished to follow suit and when the parliamentary
under-secretary resigned to take a diplomatic post, no successor was named.
However that was not the end of these positions. The Speech from the Throne in
1936 suggested that Prime Minister King intended introducing legislation for
the establishment of parliamentary secretaries. It was not until seven years
later, during another wartime Parliament that King appointed seven
parliamentary assistants. These positions were not established by a specific:
act but by a provision in the annual Appropriations Act. This placed the
parliamentary assistants on a non permanent basis, as Parliament was required
to approve the salaries involved on an annual basis. King stated that
"while the Prime Minister himself had to take responsibility for making
the appointments, it had to be made in consultation with the minister who was
head of the department in which the parliamentary assistant would be called
upon to serve. The appointee would be expected to help the minister in any way the
minister may think his services are likely to be most advantageous."4
The position itself, according to Mr. King,
was expected to provide for the parliamentary assistant the opportunity to get
in close contact with the affairs of the department as well as require the
confidence of the minister with whom the incumbent would be closely associated.
Furthermore, the appointments themselves would have to be distributed over the
nine provinces of the country without at the same time mitigating against the suitability
and qualifications of the appointees. Finally, he stated "... the
appointment of parliamentary assistants to ministers is not to be understood as
in any way implying that it gives preferment in the matter of subsequent
appointments to the Cabinet ... It would be a help undoubtedly ... Nevertheless
the appointments should not in any way affect one's freedom to express one's
This informal, non statutory system of
Parliamentary Assistants was replaced in 1959 by the Parliamentary Secretaries
Act which gave statutory recognition to the duties of a parliamentary
secretary. The Act states that the "parliamentary secretary or secretaries
to a minister shall assist the minister in such a manner as the minister
In 1971, the Government Organization Act
amended this Act so that the authorized number of PSs to hold office at any one
time is to correspond to the number of ministers receiving salaries. This made
it possible for Prime Minister Trudeau to almost double the number of appointments.
The term of office was also extended to two one-year renewable terms. The
explanation for the increased numbers of parliamentary secretaries was given by
C.M. Drury who cited a need to tree ministers from administration and to devote
more time to policy development and the need to promote greater sensitivity of
the public service to popular opinions.6 The Parliamentary
Secretaries Act was revised by an amendment to the Salaries Act of 197475 which
placed their salaries within the general Act to be revised on an annual basis
according to a formula which contains an adjustment for inflation. The salary
set in 1959 was $4,000 per annum and this has been revised upwards to the
Parliamentary secretaries are mentioned only
twice in the House of Commons Standing Orders. Section 40(3) concerning the
adjournment debate states, "a minister of the Crown or a parliamentary
secretary speaking on behalf of a minister ... may speak for not more than 3
minutes" and in section 41(2) which states that a "parliamentary
secretary acting on behalf of the minister may in his place in the House, state
that he proposes to lay upon the Table of the House, any report or other paper
. . . " Neither the existing legislation nor the Standing Orders provide
much guidance as to the role of the parliamentary secretary. The legislation is
neither specific nor determinative. The role depends largely on the 'practices'
of parliamentary secretaries. One method of examining this is by reviewing any
rulings the Speaker of the House of Commons has made with regard to
Parliamentary Secretaries and Question
In March 1966, Speaker Lucien Lamoureux
ruled "that there is nothing in our rules, nothing in our precedents, and
nothing in our practices to prevent parliamentary secretaries from asking
questions, though I realize there may be a question of propriety in certain
instances."7 Mr. Lamoureux did not condone the practice and did
his best to discourage it. On February 26,1973 he ruled, 1t is a long established
practice in Canada, going back for many years, that questions are essentially,
or basically, the privilege of members of the opposition ... It seems to me
that if parliamentary secretaries are to be recognized as having authority to
speak on behalf of the government in reply to questions, it is debatable
whether they ought to be given the privilege of asking questions." In
November 1974, Speaker James Jerome delivered an important ruling on this
matter. He recognized that prestige and advantages come to parliamentary
secretaries from their position. Not only do they occasionally answer questions
during the question period, but they do so on a regular basis during the
adjournment proceedings at 6 pm when they answer for the ministry. He concluded
with this statement, I have taken the position, to which I hold that those who
are clothed with the responsibility of answering for the government ought not
to use the time of the question period for the privilege of asking questions of
On May 20,1976, Speaker Jerome ruled on the
question of whether the opposition must accept an answer given by a
parliamentary secretary rather than the minister during the oral question
period. To be consistent with his earlier ruling the Speaker said, "If I
refuse them (parliamentary secretaries) the right to ask questions because they
have the obligation or the right to answer them, surely I am being consistent
and I would not now be able to say that a parliamentary secretary ought not to
have the capability to answer questions."8
Responsibilities of Parliamentary
The Privy Council Office has prepared a
document entitled "Briefing Notes for Parliamentary Secretaries"
which they distribute to each new secretary. Their interpretation of the role is
quite clear. According to this document responsibilities may be divided into
house business, committee business and extra-parliamentary responsibilities.
The first set of responsibilities include
assisting in carrying out the more routine duties involved in the House. These
mundane chores include handling of written questions, notices of motions for
the production of papers and other business under routine proceedings. This
would include discussions with the questioner or mover as to the information sought.
Generally, these responsibilities are performed in association with the
minister's political staff. The parliamentary secretary may read the answers to
starred questions and occasionally he or she will table a document. The second
House responsibility is following the timetable for private members' hour and
organizing the government's response (almost always to talk out) to private
members' bills and motions. Generally only parliamentary secretaries to
high-profile ministries have the opportunity to talk out a bill. Most never
carry out this responsibility.
The third area concerning the House and that
which most parliamentary secretaries have the opportunity to perform is
responding for the government on adjournment motions under Standing Order 40.
Again it is those parliamentary secretaries with the higher profile ministries
who fulfill this duty on a regular basis. Opposition days are another area of
responsibility. It is their duty to organize the debate on the government side
including his/her own participation. According to the Privy Council document,
1t is the government policy to have a minister rather than a parliamentary
secretary, as the primary respondent for the government to the motions on
opposition days." The last House responsibility is to supervise passage
through all stages in the House of legislation not involving any major policy
The involvement of parliamentary secretaries
in committee business has grown with the expansion of committee activity. With
the increased use of House Committees for dealing with clause-by-clause stage
of government bills, and for detailed scrutiny of estimates, the
responsibilities of the parliamentary secretary before committees has been
greatly enhanced. It is this increased use of the committee system which
spurred the notion that all ministers with major legislative programs should
have the assistance of a parliamentary secretary. The Privy Council
interpretation sees the parliamentary secretary performing at least four
functions in the committee. He is to organize and give leadership to the
government members on the committee. In actual practice this means acting as a
whip to encourage other government members to attend committee. It also often
means feeding questions to government members designed to make the government
and/or minister look good, or questions intended to eat up a lot of lime so the
opposition members have less opportunity to embarrass the government.
Secondly, the parliamentary secretary is to
be the advocate of the government's position in discussions of committee
business or on procedural questions. Thirdly, the parliamentary secretary is to
accompany public service witnesses presenting evidence to a committee and in
the absence of a minister, to set forth government policy and defend it before
the committee. For those parliamentary secretaries who have a good working
relationship with their minister, the parliamentary secretary ensures that he
or she is informed of the schedule and progress of the legislation.
Finally, the parliamentary secretary has the
potential for becoming the indispensable link between government and the
committee aspect of the legislative process. Because of the rather mundane
chore of sitting countless hours in committee, especially during estimates, the
minister generally does not regularly participate. The parliamentary secretary
is a useful tool for keeping tabs on the committee work and acting as the
The last area of responsibility comes under
the title extra-parliamentary responsibilities. The first function identified
is that of liaison with other Members of Parliament and Senators. Because the
parliamentary secretary is part way from the backbench but probably even more
because he has the time, he can be of great value to the government in a
liaison role with members. This can work in both directions: by intervening on
behalf and at the request of members to get departmental action on their
problems, and by carrying back responses to his policies and actions. Both
because of his availability, and because the minister rather than the
parliamentary secretary, is the object of criticism, the parliamentary
secretary can play a useful role as conciliator.
Another extra-parliamentary function is
representing the minister in dealings with members of the public and it is here
that parliamentary secretaries often play their most visible role. In dealing
with members of the public, individually or in delegations, and by representing
the minister at public occasions in and outside Ottawa, a parliamentary
secretary may in effect, add to the political impact of the minister's policies
and position. Here again, a considerable load may be lifted off the minister's
timetable by his representative. In effect, the parliamentary secretary will
fill speaking engagements or attend public ceremonies when the minister is
either too busy, engaged elsewhere, or simply does not want to be bothered but
feels it necessary to have political representation. The other occasion where
parliamentary secretaries have been utilized quite extensively is meeting
business groups, community groups, or other interest organizations who wish to
make representations to the minister about either existing legislation or
proposed legislation. They all desire to effect changes which favour their
cause. The minister will usually agree to meet the important and major groups
and often the parliamentary secretary will receive the less important and more
An important factor in the matching of
parliamentary secretaries to ministers is the variable of language and region.
Generally, an anglophone minister is paired with a francophone parliamentary
secretary and vice versa. It is also interesting to note that where electorally
possible a parliamentary secretary is drawn from a province and usually a
locale different from the ministers.
A parliamentary secretary may also act as a
Canadian representative abroad in portfolios with international dealings. This
may add to the effectiveness of Canadian representations abroad by taking a
leadership role at international meetings.
The job description provided by the Privy
Council Office rather narrowly defines the role. The memo states that one of
the occupational disabilities in accepting the role is that the parliamentary
secretary (except in the case of dealing with constituency problems on behalf
of the member) has no power to initiate departmental action. The powers to
after policy, to redirect expenditures, to hire and fire public servants all
rest with the minister. It is only by persuading the minister that the
parliamentary secretary can effect change. The Privy Council Office admits that
as a consequence of accepting the appointment, a parliamentary secretary may to
a degree undergo the disadvantage of assuming a power that is more apparent
than real. This in fact is probably true for the majority of parliamentary
secretaries. However. there are parliamentary secretaries who are unofficially
in charge of branches of a department and who not only command the direction
the civil servants should take but do initiate departmental action. This is the
exception rather than the rule.
The guidelines suggested by the Privy
Council restrict the class of knowledge to which a parliamentary secretary has
access. Due to the restrictive nature of the oath for parliamentary
secretaries, they have only authority for general knowledge of the department
activities and not information that is of a confidential or classified nature.
Here again, the experience of parliamentary secretaries varies. Some
parliamentary secretaries have never been allowed (either by the department or
the minister) access to cabinet documents while others see them on a regular
basis. This is really the key difference between a parliamentary secretary
being an errand boy and being treated like a partner in the department.
Another important factor is the personality
of the minister. Some ministers desire to make the parliamentary secretary an
integral and meaningful partner in their administrative and political team.
Others may have difficulty in accommodating themselves to the idea and the
reality of another political personality playing an active role in what they
consider their territory. A minister who wishes to husband all of the prestige
and power may refuse to delegate any meaningful responsibility to the
parliamentary secretary. The confidence and security that the minister has in
his own abilities will often determine whether a parliamentary secretary will
be used beneficially or not. Under the legislation it is the minister's
prerogative to decide.
The minister of a large and complex
department may become swamped if he tries to carry out all the work. There are
some ministers who have visibly broken off a chunk of departmental
responsibility for their parliamentary secretary but some ministries are better
suited to the delegation of responsibility than others.
Ministers are constrained by their own
position, their rank in the cabinet hierarchy, their relations with the Prime
Minister, the importance of their ministry and the political and administrative
problems facing them. All these factors affect the degree of responsibility a
parliamentary secretary is assigned.
The personality of the individual
parliamentary secretary may be equally as important in determining his or her
role. Some members may have been selected solely for representational,
linguistic, or other reasons and may lack the requisite administrative or
political skills to be given much responsibility. There are others who are too
aggressive or have little sensitivity for the minister or his staff or the
departmental bureaucracy and are hence handed little or no responsibility. The
parliamentary secretary must remember and give due respect to the fact that the
minister may be his colleague but the parliamentary secretary is not his equal.
The parliamentary secretary has to accept his subordinate status in the line of
hierarchy. It is important that not only does the parliamentary secretary have
the necessary political and administrative skills but that the minister has
confidence and trust in him. In order for the minister to delegate
responsibility, it is necessary that there exists (or is the potential for) a
good 'personal chemistry' between the two personalities.
Just as important are the personalities of
the senior departmental officials and legislative assistants to the minister.
These people often see the parliamentary secretary as a competitor for both the
time and attention of the minister. In addition, having a parliamentary
secretary can cause priority confusion for the departmental official for now
they have two political masters to serve. Some deputy ministers use the
parliamentary secretary to their own advantage. For example if there is good
news to bring to the minister, the deputy minister will be the bearer but if
there is bad news the job is passed to the parliamentary secretary.
The Privy Council Office guidelines suggest
it is the exception for a minister to permit his parliamentary secretary to
attend the regular briefings which the minister receives from his officials.
How then can a parliamentary secretary answer properly and responsibly in the
House of Commons if he is not made aware of the workings of the department for
which he is supposed to speak? The memoranda does nothing to ease this
contradiction but at least it recognizes the problem. Nevertheless, the
majority of parliamentary secretaries have been hampered in their advocacy of
government policy by not being treated as full, if junior, partners in this
As the position exists today. almost all
ministers have one parliamentary secretary. This needs to be reviewed. Some of
the larger, busier departments may need more than one parliamentary secretary.
For example transport could be divided into land, air and marine transport and
if warranted have a parliamentary secretary for each section. Energy, could be
divided into oil and gas, nuclear, and alternative energy. Some of the
ministries of state which are small and do not have heavy loads could either
forgo or double up with parliamentary secretaries. Perhaps it is time to
consider strongly the idea of junior ministers.
A political decision must be made by the
Prime Minister as to what the role for a Parliamentary Secretary should be. If
it is to simply be a rotational position available to all Members of Parliament
then this view should be clearly and definitively expressed. If the intention
of the Prime Minister is to limit the role of the parliamentary secretary to
several defined duties then it would be well to declare this intention and
precisely identify those responsibilities in the Act.
If we are to continue the practice of
parliamentary secretaries answering responsibly in the House of Commons, if
they are to play a meaningful part then they too must have access to ail
departmental work and to cabinet documents. There exists an even greater need
for an explicit definition of the responsibilities of a parliamentary
secretary. This would provide greater consistency and less confusion for all
parties concerned, including the minister, the parliamentary secretary,
departmental officials, and the opposition. If the parliamentary secretary's
role is precisely defined and codified in a document setting out the terms of
appointment, this would make it no longer entirely left to the discretion of
the Minister. The present haphazard method would be transformed into a
consistent, understood aspect of parliamentary government.9
1. Since this article was written the House
of Commons passed Bill C-152 to amend the Parliamentary Secretaries Act
and permit the appointment of Senators as parliamentary secretaries.
2. Ottawa Journal, October 9, 1980.
3. Richard J. Cartwright, Reminiscences,
W. Briggs, Toronto, 1912, p. 288.
4. Canada, House of Commons, Debates,
April 20, 1943, p. 2344.
5. Ibid., April 20, 1943, p. 2345.
6. Ibid., January 26, 1971, p. 2773.
7. Ibid., March 7, 1966, p. 2289.
8. Ibid., May 20, 1976, p. 13707.
9. For further information on the role of Parliamentary
Secretaries see the recent articles by Claude Majeau, Linda Rivington and
Kathryn J. Randle in Parliamentary Government, Vol. 4 (No. 3, 1983), pp.