David Collenette speaks at Glendon on ministerial responsibility

Marika Kemeny, public relations and communications advisor to Glendon College sent YFile the following account.

Last Friday, Jan. 24, Federal Minister of Transport David Collenette returned to Glendon, his alma mater, to address an audience of about 50 students, faculty, staff and alumni. He came to discuss the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, a topic of particular relevance to the college, which has a tradition of educating future public servants of the highest ranks.

Collenette first presented a bird’s-eye view of the evolution of the cabinet, modelled on the British system. Originally a group of advisors to the reigning monarch of the day, each minister was personally accountable for his opinions and his actions. Major mistakes usually resulted in the minister being obliged to resign from his position. With the tremendous increase in government departments and members of the civil service, individual responsibility at the ministerial level has had to be replaced by the delegation of authority and decision-making, with responsibility for everyone’s own actions all the way down the line.

These days, ministers are no longer independent entities solely involved with their specific mandate. They must confer and collaborate with the heads of other government departments. As activities of the various departments interrelate and overlap, ministers are frequently obliged to accommodate to the requirements of others, thereby relinquishing total power over certain decisions. However, the net outcome is usually positive, alleviating the sense of isolation of ministers of former days and ultimately creating a team of peers who work together cohesively for the benefit of their government and their country. Yet there are emergencies when a minister must act quickly, decisively and without much consultation. Collenette gave a fascinating account of his role in protecting Canada’s skies and safely bringing down those planes already in the air during the Sept. 11th (2001) crisis, when delay would have resulted in great risk to many people.

Collenette also touched on the notion of accountability as it relates to ministers of government. With the Access to Information Act, their every action can and does become public information, placing new pressures, both positive and negative on each individual.

The minister of transport reminisced about the ‘60s and ‘70s in government and also about his happy memories as an undergraduate at Glendon. It was a time which brought exciting personalities such as René Levesque and Lester B. Pearson to the college. It was also the perfect place for Collenette, who was born in England, to become fluently bilingual. A lively question period from the floor was directed at a broad range of issues, from the great need for a rapid transit connection to the Toronto airport, to the city’s uncontrolled urban sprawl and the lack of public transportation to service it. His frank and direct replies touched on the federal government’s serious under-funding of such essential services as transportation, healthcare, social welfare and education.

Collenette was appointed minister of transport in 1997, and is the minister responsible for the Greater Toronto Area. In addition, his portfolio includes a number of government corporations, such as the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Canada Post and the Royal Canadian Mint, among others. For close to 30 years, he has served on numerous government committees and has held a variety of responsibilities.

In the private sector, Collenette has worked in the life insurance, plastics and executive recruitment fields. He holds a Glendon Honours BA ‘69 and has pursued post-graduate studies in legislative behaviour and urban affairs at York University and Carleton University. He has served as chancellor of the Royal Military College of Canada (1993-1996), and is currently a member of the International Advisory Council, Institute for International Studies, Stanford University (California).