By now it should be blindingly obvious to anyone who followed the Trudeau Liberals’ recent cabinet shuffle that there were three important considerations OTHER than competence that drove the prime minister’s decisions in this game of musical chairs. These would be diversity, communications skills and regional representation.
The first two of these factors are emphasized in all western democracies today. The growing number of women, representatives of ethnic groups, the disabled and the LGBTQ community in the cabinets of all liberal democracies has been well-documented. Canada is no exception. In some cases — such as achieving gender parity – it has led the way.
As for the ability to communicate, not surprisingly all parties in power want to have people in their cabinet who are able to explain and sell their policies convincingly to the general public. Surprisingly, given the fact that they must interact with voters/constituents, not all MPs are strong communicators. This holds true of ministers as well, whatever their other talents and skills may be. Ministers, of course, are subject to far greater scrutiny in the House of Commons and in the media. This is more relevant now than ever, with the advent of hyperpartisan politics and social media. As a rule, all government leaders place their strongest communicators in cabinet posts that are priorities for their government or have challenging issues to address, and Canada is no exception here either. (One of the best communicators in the cabinet of former prime minister Jean Chretien was Brian Tobin, an MP from Newfoundland who had been a radio announcer in St. John’s before running for public office, and someone who knew little or nothing about the fishery or the cod crisis. Yet his exceptional communication skills, and willingness to follow the advice of the professional public service experts assigned to that file, soon made him one of the most effective and well-known Fisheries Ministers ever.)
What is unusual about Canada is the third factor listed above, regional representation. Although this further complicates the cabinet selection process, this factor is not only not a new one, but actually has been in place for far longer than the others. The belief that all regions of Canada should have a seat at the cabinet table was well-entrenched by the middle of the last century, and since then has expanded rapidly to mean every province.[i] Both Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments were so committed to this concept that they appointed senators from Alberta and Quebec respectively to fill gaps in their cabinet representation, having failed to elect any MPs from those provinces. In 1979 newly elected prime minister Joe Clark initially crafted a cabinet with many more western MPs than ever, but was still roundly criticized because it did not contain a representative from BC, (a “mistake” he quickly rectified).
Why is this regional factor so important in Canada and much less so elsewhere among western democracies? First and foremost, this is something that affects federations, and not many of our western allies have a federal system of government. In addition Canada is the second largest country in the world, making geographic distance and topography far more important here than elsewhere. Some would also argue that the reality of 10 subnational units (provinces) in our federation is significant because it is possibly the worst number to accommodate. The Americans, with 50 states, have far too many to worry about. No one cares if there is a cabinet member from Iowa, Delaware or Tennessee. A somewhat similar situation can be found in Germany, with 16 subnational units. In addition to its much smaller geographic size, it also has a unique overarching consideration, namely the accommodation of the former eastern bloc section of the country. Meanwhile Australia, with only 6 subnational units, is less concerned about regional representation but can, in any event, easily accommodate this factor in a reasonably-sized cabinet.
Indeed, one of the consequences of this regional imperative in Canadian cabinet-making, when added to the concerns about diversity and communication skills, is indeed the size of a federal cabinet. If all of these factors are to be accommodated, in addition to the underlying need for competence and/or experience, a Canadian cabinet will almost inevitably be far larger than the norm elsewhere. President Biden’s current cabinet totals 15, while French President Emmanuel Macron appointed a new cabinet of 18 last year and the current Australian cabinet weighs in at 20. By contrast, this most recent iteration of the Trudeau cabinet contains 39 ministers, up from 30 in 2015, and the highs of 31 under Jean Chretien and 30 under Brian Mulroney.
Believe it or not, there are also other “traditional” representational concerns, such as the perceived need to have an anglophone Quebecer and someone from the Jewish community at the table. As new factors have emerged, particularly with respect to various recently arrived immigrant communities, the pressure on the cabinet selection process has expanded exponentially.
With this understanding of reality under our belts the rationale for the composition of the current cabinet becomes crystal clear. This is a cabinet of 19 women and 20 men, thereby retaining gender parity. This is a cabinet with representation from every region (West 6, Atlantic 6, Quebec 11, Ontario 16) and every province except Saskatchewan. (Given that the Liberals did not elect any MPs from that province, they would have had to appoint a senator to fill the gap, something that is no longer considered acceptable.) This is a cabinet with 9 representatives of different, recently arrived immigrant communities. This is a cabinet with three self-described members of the LGBTQ community and one with a recognized disability. And this is a cabinet with an anglophone Quebec MP from Montreal and a Jewish MP from Toronto.
In short, all of the regional and diversity boxes have been ticked. Moreover the importance of such representation increases as an election approaches. One is not scheduled, or expected, until 2025, but it is also unlikely the prime minister will want to do this again before then. This is, in fact, the pre-election cabinet, and the Liberals need the votes of all of those various communities if they are to remain in power. Rightly or wrongly, politicians are convinced that seeing themselves represented in cabinet sways some voters.
But this is only part of the story of this cabinet shuffle. For one thing, it would appear that communications skills were a higher priority in the formation of this particular cabinet than they were in the last three crafted by Mr. Trudeau. And failure to communicate, or actual communications disasters, were a hanging offence this time. Of the three ministers dropped entirely from cabinet, (four others left cabinet voluntarily because they announced they would not seek re-election in 2025) two had demonstrated they lacked such skills. Marco Mendocino, the deposed Minister of Public Safety, is a case in point. The beleaguered minister had considerable difficulty communicating the government’s message on police input concerning the Emergencies Act, amendments to gun control legislation, Chinese interference in Canada’s domestic affairs and the transfer of serial killer Paul Bernardo, to mention only the most egregious problems. The government simply could not afford any further missteps on this file. A somewhat similar situation arose with Treasury Board President Mona Fortier, whose inability to forge a good working relationship with the federal public service resulted in the ongoing headache of the Phoenix pay crisis and, worse still, the first strike of federal workers since 2004. This is a government that knows it needs the cooperation and goodwill of the public service in order to implement its agenda, so a new face to communicate positively with its workers was essential.
On the plus side of the ledger, some of the existing cabinet’s best communicators were moved to portfolios where the government is under siege or needs to make a strong impression with voters about its platform. These include former House Leader Mark Holland assuming the Health portfolio, former Immigration Minister Sean Fraser moving over to Housing and former Families and Children Minister Karina Gould, an acknowledged expert in her Question Period performances, taking on the role of House Leader. Perhaps most importantly, it includes one of Trudeau’s closest confidants, Dominic LeBlanc, adding the Public Safety file to his responsibilities in an effort to overcome the problems of the Mendocino era.
Turning now to the seven new members of the cabinet, there is also potentially good news for the Liberals, and Canadians, especially in comparison with their cabinet choices in 2015 or even 2019. In those early days, the three factors discussed above were crucial to the new image the Liberals were trying to create of the federal government, but they also caused considerable difficulty because they were a new government with new MPs, almost none of whom had any political or legislative experience. Taking some of the newcomers out of the caucus pool and placing them in cabinet posts immediately was akin to asking them to run before they could walk. The result was an embarrassing number of PR disasters. This time around, the new faces in cabinet are NOT new MPs, but individuals who have been in parliament for at least two years, most of whom have also served as parliamentary secretaries to ministers. Arif Virai, the new Minister of Justice, is a case in point, having served as the secretary to his predecessor, former Justice Minister David Lametti. And, like all of these new faces, Virai’s credentials and experience are extremely impressive.
This is not to suggest that there are no unanswered questions regarding this cabinet shuffle. Why Justice Minister David Lametti, an extremely competent performer, was dropped from cabinet altogether is one of the more obvious puzzles. Another is why Defence Minister Anita Anand, a highly successful Minister of National Defence, was effectively demoted to Treasury Board. There has, of course, been much speculation about these and other moves, but no definitive explanation has emerged. Nevertheless, overall this is a cabinet that is easily explained in terms of the traditional cultural imperatives of Canadian cabinet-making. Whether it will serve the Liberals’ overall purpose of re-setting their government’s image and relationship with Canadians remains to be seen.
[i] For a recent analysis of this situation, including references to earlier standard works, see: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/canadian-journal-of-political-science-revue-canadienne-de-science-politique/article/representation-and-ministerial-influence-on-cabinet-committees-in-canada/F93BA926F61658AC099328964A70E23D