Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Shuffling a Bloated Cabinet

Getting ready to write today’s piece I read Andrew Coyne’s article on the federal cabinet shuffle. I found all of what I had to say said in a manner far superior than I could hope to duplicate. Coyne makes the simple argument that the cabinet shuffle that Canadian political media has obsessed over is meaningless.

Cabinets in Canadian politics are far too big, the federal government’s is embarrassingly so. None of our peers in the world have cabinets the size we do. Does anyone truly believe that governing Canada is more complicated and requires a greater number of ministers than the United States, the United Kingdom or Germany? This is also a problem in our dear Ontario where over half of the Liberal caucus is in cabinet. Cabinet posts in the modern era have transformed into an analog of the venal office. They are government slots for sale. However instead of paying in coin for social advancement the MPs pay in their dignity. The main group of Conservative promoted in the cabinet shuffle were the leads on talking points. Therefore those who have given misleading, incorrect or baffling statements on issues of the day have been rewarded with greater salaries and a modest boost in prestige.

Cabinet-building in Canada is not about matching experience and ability, but checking boxes and providing a certain image. More women have been brought in, but they hold virtually meaningless titles, aside from the new Health Minister. The most important and powerful cabinet positions have remained intact. In this government that means the economic portfolios. It is the lack of change in certain areas that is most telling. For example, Peter Van Loan (CPC – York-Simcoe, ON) remains as Government House Leader despite his failings in that position and disquiet among the backbench about him.

As I have written about before, these venal offices are carrots offered to MPs so that they behave themselves and tow the party line. The explosion in the size of cabinet, which is nearly double the size of our peers, is a symbol of the need for tighter control. I think a truly bold reform for a future Premier or Prime Minister would be to cut cabinet down to size. A leader who shrunk cabinet down to 20 or 30 ministers would be a sign that cabinet was going to exercise real influence and authority again.

Sadly, it seems unlikely. I am not sure for what practical reasons cabinet can continue to grow. I cannot imagine a day with 50 cabinet ministers, but chances have it positions like Parliament Secretary will continue to proliferate in both their ineffectiveness and uselessness. A real cabinet shuffle would see half the cabinet shuffled off and a smaller body with real influence take its place.

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