Canadian Cabinet-making 101

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As Pierre Trudeau famously said when disagreeing with those who thought Quebec was a distinct society, “on the contrary, CANADA is the distinct society.” At the time he was speaking of our justifiably famous reputation as a bilingual, multicultural peaceable kingdom. But there are many other ways in which Canada is distinctly different from many of our federal democratic counterparts, and not all of them are so admirable. One of the most obvious is the way we choose our cabinets.  

On October 26 the fundamental but unwritten rules of federal cabinet-making were on full display, producing one of the largest and potentially most unwieldy cabinets in recent memory. True, at 40 it is former prime minister Brian Mulroney who holds the record, but 39 cabinet ministers is nothing to sneeze at. Why so many?

To be clear, there are perfectly valid reasons why federal cabinets have grown in size since the Second World War, so historic comparisons can only go so far. One critic of the oversized Justin Trudeau cabinet recently compared it unfavourably with the much smaller ones of early prime ministers such as John A Macdonald and Wilfrid Laurier. This is nonsense. There were far fewer cabinet ministers in those days because government did so little. No one expected the federal government to do much more than protect citizens by making laws and maintaining an army, printing money, building railroads and ferries, delivering the mail, helping to promote agriculture and handling relations with indigenous peoples. Even so there were 18 cabinet ministers in addition to Macdonald. 

Fast forward to the second half of the twentieth century, when citizen expectations about government after the Great Depression and two World Wars resulted in an explosion of government programs and services that constituted what we now know as the welfare state. Of course more hands were needed on deck to administer all of these new programs.

Plus times change and issues change. The federal Environment department was only created in 1971. There is now a department for Seniors, one of the largest demographics in the country, unthinkable fifty years ago. Housing has now returned as a federal department, after an absence of many years, in light of a perceived crisis of accessibility and affordability. In case it is not obvious by now, there is no such thing as a specific department in the constitution of Canada. Departments come and go at the pleasure of prime ministers and governments to suit their policy (and sometimes political) objectives. Names change. Emphasis changes. Hence the current title is Department of the Environment and Climate Change, for example.

So far this explanation of an expanded role for government could apply to any of our democratic counterparts. All of their cabinets are much larger than they once were. But none have become as bloated as ours. This is especially significant since our population is so much smaller than many of them. So what makes Canada different?

First and foremost, we have always put a huge emphasis on regional representation in the federal cabinet. Others do not. (Imagine Americans complaining because a president’s new cabinet did not contain a representative from Kansas or Idaho. Imagine them even knowing where the cabinet members came from, as opposed to their background and their areas of expertise.) Here, by contrast, not only every region but every province, and in some cases several areas within a province, (think northern Ontario in addition to Toronto and southwestern Ontario, or Quebec City as well as Montreal and rural Quebec)  must be seen to be present at the cabinet table. 

This concern with regional representation appears to be a sine qua non in the thinking of Canadian politicians and citizens, likely brought on by the failure of the Senate to fulfill the regional representation function for which it was created. Faute de mieux, the cabinet now seems to serve that purpose, as do federal-provincial first ministers meetings and the system often known as executive federalism. To provide just one example of how seriously this representation is taken, in 1979 when newly-elected Prime Minister Joe Clark, a westerner himself, attempted to form a cabinet without any representation from B.C., a political firestorm ensued until that oversight was corrected. 

Another longstanding concern in Canada’s cabinet-making tradition is linguistic balance, which often is blended in with representation from Quebec, although technically there also should be an anglophone Quebecer in the cabinet as well.

Now add on the various imperatives of the last several decades to include other categories of representation that might be broadly classified as diversity – gender, ethnicity, and of course most recently BIPOC and LGBTQ individuals. This prime minister, in particular, has made firm commitments to gender parity in Cabinet, and to a far more diverse representation of Canadian society in his caucus and cabinet. Given that cabinet ministers are drawn from the caucus of the party in power, there are obvious limitations. Simply put, one must choose from the hand one is dealt. When one then attempts to match all of these requirements with at least some knowledge of the subject area of a cabinet portfolio, things become tricky to say the least.

Against this representational trend one then has to balance relevant experience. Someone who has already served as an elected member, or better yet a parliamentary secretary, will need much less time to master how government works in general and how their department operates in particular. Conversely, appointing someone to cabinet who has never even served as an MP before is like throwing someone in at the deep end of the pool. Some will sink rather than swim. But of course by encouraging more non-traditional communities – not just white middle aged male lawyers – to participate in politics, the more likely it is that the new crop of MPs will have much less knowledge of how government works, or even how political parties work. Ask Jody Wilson-Raybould, who admitted she was not cut out to be a party person, or Bardish Chagger, who looked lost the moment she showed up on Parliament Hill.

 This is not to say that efforts to diversify representation are a mistake. Quite the contrary. All democracies fare far better when most of their citizens participate in political activities and all see themselves represented there. But this takes time, just as it does in other sectors where affirmative action is employed. It is only fair to let newcomers find their sea legs before giving them an impossibly difficult task.

I would argue that the first Trudeau cabinet suffered from many of these well-meaning but overly ambitious mistakes. In many cases the blind were leading the blind and senior advisers who could have salvaged the situation were ignored. The second did better, and the pandemic actually helped by making it clear where strength lay (or did not) in a short period of time. This third cabinet, while still a victim of the representational upsizing, is large but likely much more competent. This is partly because a sufficient body of experienced actors have been retained who can be relied upon, and who have proven their capabilities. It is also because the prime minister has a clear agenda with clear priorities and can put his best people where he needs them. There are obvious tiers of importance in this cabinet, based on competence. This may be a large cabinet but not all ministers are created equal. Not all will have the PM’s ear.

Of course politics has also clearly played a role in the representation from Quebec, which can hardly fail to impress the voters of that province who can now visibly see the advantage of voting for the party that forms government and not the Bloc. (After all, there will be another election sooner or later, and Quebec may hold the path to a Liberal majority.)   

 And of course inevitably when trying to juggle these requirements there were casualties. Unless numbers were to get completely out of hand, some incumbents had to go. The rationale for why some stayed and some were let go is a mug’s game. Was Marc Garneau a victim of this system or a reasonable decision in the context? Should Harjit Sajjan really have been given another chance? Did we need to add the inexperienced Kamal Khera and Pascale St.Onge? On the other hand why did neither Marie-France Lalonde or Yassir Naqvi – both former ministers in Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal Ontario government – make the grade? Or Gatineau MP Greg Fergus, a seasoned MP and former Liberal organizer who has served as parliamentary secretary to the prime minister? Inquiring minds may want to know, but the answers are probably less logical and more straightforward than one might expect. Likely the problem is where they live. As with the countless highly competent MPs from Toronto who would have been excellent cabinet material in a different scenario, the Ottawa capital region has already been seated at the table.

Still, there is much to be said about the prime minister’s appointment of the hard-nosed Jean-Yves Duclos to conduct the negotiations with provinces on health care funding, which must have minimum national standards attached in any Trudeau universe. As for the obvious, clearly Justin Trudeau has given up on friendly negotiations with Alberta’s Jason Kenney and is now showing a stick rather than a carrot, demonstrating how serious he is about his climate change agenda with the dynamic duo of Guilbeault and Wilkinson in charge. Similarly one might well expect Mark Miller to make progress on reconciliation and Anita Anand to finally put the military brass in their place. All in all, probably Trudeau’s best effort yet.