Building A Better Cabinet

On November 4, 2015 I posted my thoughts on the process involved in cabinet building – the political kind as opposed to home renovations. Today once again the Prime Minister is set to unveil his new cabinet, which makes that four-year-old post relevant.

I had concerns the first time around that turned out to be justified. In his decision to prioritize gender balance, Prime Minster Selfie brought a number of  women into his cabinet who were political neophytes and not ready for the positions they were given. I won’t name names, but his much vaunted electoral reform promise might have been kept if spearheaded by someone with experience.

This time around his task is harder. He lost two of his most capable ministers to an ethics scandal. (His ethics or lack thereof – they resigned in protest.) His party failed to elect any MPs from Alberta or Saskatchewan, which will make regional representation a challenge. And he leads a minority government; any parliamentary misstep could lead to a snap election – not a good situation for rookie cabinet members.

I don’t expect today’s list to be more inspiring than the 2015 one was. Not the Prime Minister’s fault perhaps. After all, a workman is only as good as his tools and his materials.

For the  record, below are my comments from 2015.     

I try to stay away from home renovations, having inherited my father’s clumsiness with tools. Better to hire someone who can do it right. So when my wife wanted some changes to the cabinets in our kitchen, I looked at the task, said “I could probably do that” and reached for the phone to call an expert. I know my limitations and carpentry is not one of my strengths.

Cabinet making is on Canadians’ minds today, as the limousines pull up to Rideau Hall, home of the Governor General, the Queen’s representative in Canada. The cabinet for Canada’s New Government will be sworn in (and yes, if you are a political scientist I used that term deliberately). Two weeks after the federal election, new Prime Minster, Justin Trudeau will show just how good a carpenter he is as his new cabinet is revealed.

Just as there are certain essential tools needed if you want to construct a kitchen cabinet, in Canada there are a multitude of factors that determine who gets to be a Cabinet Minister. It isn’t always about being the most qualified person, which means that all too often our governments have had some rather weak people in top positions, causing Prime Ministers to have to renovate their cabinets on a regular basis.

You would think that in choosing the people who actually run the government the Prime Minister would automatically choose the best and the brightest. Unfortunately, constructing a cabinet is an exercise in politics; different groups must be appeased with a spot at the top.

Mr. Trudeau promised, before the votes were counted, that half his cabinet would be women. This is a worthy statement if you agree that women have been underrepresented at the cabinet table. You can make a strong case for that. However, his caucus isn’t 50% female, so there will be suggestions of bias, that perhaps Minister “X” has her job only because she is a woman. If he is to live up to his promise, given a choice between a qualified male and a less qualified female, gender must now be considered. I leave it to you to decide whether that is right. (And I will freely admit, I haven’t looked at the qualifications of the people Mr. Trudeau has to choose from, I am only speaking theoretically in this instance.)

This being Canada, there is far more to cabinet making than gender balance. Each province expects to have at least one representative at the cabinet table. So that’s automatically 10 designated spots, 11 if you agree you should have at least one representative for the three northern territories, out of a group of 30. Quebec, a predominantly francophone province, feels it should be proportionally represented at the cabinet table. If my memory serves me correctly, in the last Parliament the governing Conservatives named four of their five Quebec MPs to cabinet. I wonder how the other one felt?

So in a cabinet you have to balance men and women, the regions and provinces, anything else? Of course! You need representatives of minority groups, visible and invisible, and ethnic communities. Don’t forget Canada’s Aboriginal population, should your party have an Aboriginal MP. You can build your cabinet – but it is probably easier to do kitchen renovations without a hammer and saw. As a citizen I just hope that once all the competing interests are dealt with we are left with someone at least half competent running the country.

I was considering naming some people from the past two decades, Liberals and Conservatives, whose presence in Cabinet was far more due to what they represented than who they were and their abilities. It didn’t seem fair though – they aren’t here to defend themselves, and they are gone now. Let’s just say the list would have made this post twice as long.

So today Mr. Trudeau shows Canada and the world just what sort of carpenter he is. Of course, with many renovations, you can’t really tell how good the workmanship is until some time has passed. What looks good today might look quite different when the paint has dried.

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