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Tighten belts, Chretien tells 1993 cabinet

Tighten belts, Chretien tells 1993 cabinetPrime Minister Jean Chretien reviews some notes prior to an interview with The Canadian Press at his Parliament Hill office in Ottawa, November 11, 1993. Chretien chopped the size of his office and those of his ministers at his very first cabinet meeting in 1993, saying the previous Conservative administration had grown too large and controlling. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tom Hanson

OTTAWA - Jean Chretien chopped the size of his office and those of his ministers at his very first cabinet meeting in 1993, saying the previous Conservative administration had grown too large and controlling.

The new Liberal prime minister told his 31-person cabinet that ministers would not be allowed to hire chiefs of staff and would have to rely much more on public servants for policy advice.

All told, some $10 million would be cut from the administrative budgets of the Prime Minister's Office and ministers, with strict limits on the numbers and salaries of political staff.

And cabinet itself would be leaner, with the elimination of the priorities and planning committee, to remove an unnecessary layer of discussion.

The lean theme dominates the minutes of the Nov. 4, 1993, meeting of Chretien's first cabinet session following the Liberals' trouncing of the Conservatives in an election just 11 days earlier.

The minutes were obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, which allows most cabinet records to be made public only after 20 years.

One page was redacted entirely to protect the economic interests of Canada.

"The prime minister also asked ministers to rely on their departments for advice — that deputy ministers are part of their teams," say the minutes.

"In this regard, ministers' political staff will be smaller than in the previous government and should focus on political matters. Ministers should use their departments for advice and support on policy issues."

Chretien, whose party won a decisive majority of 177 seats and reduced the Conservatives to a two-seat rump, also warned the roomful of neophyte ministers to watch what they said to reporters.

"He also cautioned ministers with respect to their dealings with the press suggesting that they minimize comments to the media."

There was little other business at the morning meeting in the Centre Block of Parliament Hill, other than to ratify two key election planks, that is, the cancellation of the EH-101 military helicopter order, and the launch of an infrastructure program to reboot the recession-ravaged economy.

Both policies were prominent in the so-called Red Book the Liberals unveiled at the start of the Oct. 25, 1993, election campaign. Cabinet was also given updates on the NAFTA trade deal and on a proposed First Ministers' meeting.

"No public discussion of cabinet business," the group was told. "What goes on here is between us. ... outside this room — we speak with one voice."

One of the fresh-faced cabinet ministers that morning is still in the House of Commons, Liberal MP Ralph Goodale, then agriculture minister.

"The mood was buoyant, obviously," Goodale said in an interview, recalling the gathering two decades ago. "A year or so earlier people were saying ... we couldn't win an election."

Goodale said Chretien's downsizing of ministerial staff was a response to the Mulroney administration of 1984 to 1993, which had built layers of political staff between ministers and the public service over the years.

"It's an affliction that a lot of governments come to after a certain time in office," said Goodale, now deputy leader of the Liberals under Justin Trudeau.

On ministerial downsizing, Goodale said of his current leader: "His view, I think, would be in a similar direction to the one expressed by Mr. Chretien."

Prime Minister Kim Campbell succeeded Mulroney in June 1993, and soon cut the size of her cabinet to 23 people from 35. Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper's last cabinet shuffle included 39 ministers.

Chretien himself retained a chief of staff in 1993, Jean Pelletier, and the power and size of his office grew over the years. Chretien's successor, Paul Martin, in 2005 further expanded the role of the Prime Minister's Office.

Justice John Gomery's final report on the sponsorship scandal in early 2006 criticized the growing influence of the PMO, urging it be reined in.

Since forming government in 2006, Harper has expanded the power of the PMO, which spent $8.2 million on staff, communications and other items in 2012-2013, up seven per cent from the previous year, according to the Public Accounts.

Kim Campbell's last meeting of cabinet on Oct., 29, 1993, was a more sombre affair, with only one member, Industry Minister Jean Charest, having retained his seat in the Commons.

Minutes obtained under access to information show discussion focused largely on ministers' pensions, severance allowances, expenses, medical insurance and the fate of their political staff. They were also told to be out of their offices by Nov. 4.

Suzanne Hurtubise, deputy secretary of cabinet, also told cabinet members to rest assured that their secrets would be safeguarded.

"I have asked deputies to make necessary arrangements to ensure that incoming ministers do not have access to records, views and opinions of this government."

Government expert Ned Franks, a retired professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., said in an interview that "it's a long-standing tradition that the papers of the government are not passed on to the succeeding."

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