This information from the Minister’s transition binder was current as of November 2019. We don’t update this page as it is part of the historical record.
Cabinet is the body of advisors that sets the federal government's policies and priorities for the country. Members of Cabinet (Ministers) are appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister. The Cabinet system performs several key functions, including: securing agreement among Ministers on Government priorities and parliamentary actions; providing a forum of debate; and, ensuring Ministers have the necessary information they need to carry out their responsibilities.
The Cabinet system is formed by Cabinet committees. While it is the Prime Minister's prerogative to organize Cabinet and the Cabinet committee decision-making system, in the recent past there have been two types of Cabinet committees: policy committees and executive committees. Generally, policy committees consider proposals aimed at implementing the government's agenda, parliamentary business, and any other matter of general concern to Canadians or the government. Issues are normally brought forth by a Minister in the form of a Memorandum to Cabinet which is tendered to the appropriate Cabinet committee after it has been circulated to all member Ministers. In past Parliaments, policy committees have been established to examine issues such as social affairs, the economy, the environment, foreign affairs, security, Indigenous affairs, Canada-U.S. relations, and unity.
Once an item has been discussed at a policy committee and consensus has been reached, a Cabinet Committee Recommendation (CR) is issued. The decision is subject to confirmation by an executive committee chaired by the Prime Minister. Once a decision has been reached by the Executive committee, it is recorded and communicated throughout the government in the form of a Record of Decision (RD).
Besides their role in confirming decisions made by policy committees, executive committees generally consider items of special urgency, political issues and the review of senior appointments. Treasury Board is also considered an executive committee as its decisions are not normally subject to further approval. It has historically been responsible for financial, personnel and administrative management, comptrollership, and approving regulations and most Orders-in-Council.
Items for Cabinet consideration
Generally, any new policy direction or position must be approved by Cabinet. While the scope of the responsibility can vary, examples of issues on which Ministers are typically instructed to have Cabinet approval include: new or major policy changes; Government responses (GR) to parliamentary committee reports; Government positions on Private Members' Business (PMB); legislation; and high-level consultation/issues management.
Cabinet documents to support decision-making
In most cases, a Memorandum to Cabinet (MC) is prepared by the Department in consultation with the Minister and is signed and submitted by the Minister in order to obtain a Cabinet decision on a proposal. Once approved by the Minister, the MC is shared with other Ministers who are members of the Cabinet committee that will consider the issue. (This distribution is managed by the Privy Council Office, which acts as the secretariat for all Cabinet committees.)
An MC outlines the background, rationale, options and the recommended policy approach. The MC may also include drafting instructions for legislation when necessary, an Implementation Plan for policy, a Communications Plan to manage both internal and external communications and, a Parliamentary Plan that sets out the strategy for managing the issue in Parliament. MCs are written with the intended audience in mind—the Ministers who will discuss, make recommendations on, and decide on the proposals set out in the MC. Thus, MCs need to be comprehensive so that Ministers have all the information they require to consider the matter in question.
Similar in many ways to an MC, a Treasury Board Submission (TB Sub) is an official Cabinet document seeking specific authorities or approvals from the Treasury Board, usually to authorize the implementation of a program or project, or to execute a major procurement in support of government operations. The objective of the TB Sub process is to ensure that proposals are aligned with Government of Canada priorities and that they are designed, implemented and delivered to realize their intended results, while achieving value for money. A TB Sub transforms policy objectives previously approved by another Cabinet committee into an initiative that will achieve those objectives. In general, a TB Sub details how the initiative will be carried out, although additional elements are included, such as:
- What efforts were made to minimize costs and make full use of existing resources
- Why the proposed method of implementation is the best one in relation to others
- What lessons learned from previous experiences were used in designing the initiative
- How critical risks associated with implementing the proposal will be managed
- How performance will be monitored and evaluated to ensure that the initiative is meeting its policy objectives
Protecting Cabinet documents
In order to reach final decisions, Ministers must be able to express their views freely during the discussions held in Cabinet. As a result, the collective decision-making process has traditionally been protected by the rule of confidentiality. Cabinet documents are therefore classified SECRET, but can also occasionally be classified at a higher level.
Rules that apply to SECRET Cabinet documents include:
- SECRET and CONFIDENCE OF THE QUEEN’S PRIVY COUNCIL headings must appear at the top right corner of each page (including draft versions)
- No signed copies of an MC should be kept in departmental records
- Cabinet documents should only be made available on a need-to-know basis
- Individuals who are required to handle Cabinet documents must hold a SECRET security clearance
- All draft versions of documents must be shredded prior to disposal
- Documents must be secured at all times
- When travelling, E-Cabinet tablets need to be accompanied by a completed courier certificate/itinerary form, and should be kept in a locked security briefcase
- Electronic documents must only be stored and transmitted via secure means (e.g., Government of Canada Secret Infrastructure)
Note that the distribution of final Cabinet documents occurs via E-Cabinet tablets, which PCO implemented to make the Cabinet decision-making process more modern and efficient. The handling of E-Cabinet tablets is subject to additional rules to ensure the protection of Cabinet documents.
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