In the wake of the Bernier debacle, talk has turned to the inevitable cabinet shuffle. It’s billed as a chance, not just to replace Bernier at Foreign Affairs, but to relaunch the government after the serial embarrassments of recent weeks – the NAFTA memo, RCMP raiding Conservative headquarters, etc. etc. It would, however, be the third such relaunch in a little over two years in office; if all that is achieved is to move the same familiar faces a few feet this way or that around the cabinet table, it may succeed only in reminding people of how thin the Tory ranks really are. What’s needed is not so much a shuffle as new cards, drafting in some of the brighter members of caucus who have been left to languish on the back benches or in junior ministerial posts. That can’t happen so long as the choice of ministers is left to the spoils system – racial, sexual, and especially regional – that cabinet government has become in this country.
In few other democratic countries is such a rigid system of quotas imposed, calculated down to the last decimal point — what percentage of cabinet goes to Quebec, how many women, and so on. The press is as much to blame as anyone. Cabinets are scrutinized not, as in other countries, for what they reveal about the governing party’s ideological direction, or for what this or that appointment might mean for a particular department. Why should they be? Parties don’t stand for anything, and the prime minister makes all the important decisions anyway. So instead it’s all fun with figures.
Cabinet posts in this country are not, as they are elsewhere, opportunities for able people to serve their country. They are gifts to be offered up to this or that region or interest group to buy their votes. The perverse consequence: the fewer MPs a region elects, the more cabinet ministers it is awarded. Quebec may have relatively few Conservative MPs, but they are nearly all guaranteed a cabinet post at some point. Whereas MPs from BC and Alberta, where the party is hip-deep in talent, can pretty much buy a lottery ticket for all the chance they have of being picked.
It’s exactly this kind of process that resulted in Maxime Bernier being installed at Foreign Affairs: a process that, so long as it remains, only sets us up for the next hasty shuffle. Perhaps it’s time we started fishing at the deep end of the talent pool.