Cabinet is not a meritocracy. And it hasn’t been for decades.

Home province, first language and whether a prime minister trusts an MP are all methods of picking a cabinet. Gender is no less arbitrary.

Rideau Hall.

Justin Trudeau will introduce his cabinet on Wednesday at Rideau Hall.

We’ll soon find out who will be in Justin Trudeau’s cabinet, bringing to an end Ottawa’s favourite post-election game (ranking just above “Who will win the election for House Speaker?” and, “Who will get to chair the procedure and House affairs committee?”). Inextricably linked to this season’s cabinet speculation is debate over Trudeau’s pledge to have women fill half the ministerial roles.

A lot of people have argued against the pledge; some women find it patronizing. The men and women opposed are offended by the idea that one person’s—let’s face it, one man’s—merit might be overlooked because of that Y chromosome. Others don’t like the quota, which Trudeau isn’t legislating, by the way; he simply set himself a goal.

Here’s the thing: Cabinet is not a meritocracy. It hasn’t been, at least as far back as 1968. It’s always been influenced by a range of factors, including where an MP is from and whether he or she is an anglophone or francophone. And while those factors are practical, other selections seem to be made based on someone’s fundraising ability or skill at obfuscating in the House of Commons.

Give me a good merit-based reason why Julian Fantino held three cabinet posts, all of them disastrous. What exactly qualified Fantino to be the minister for international development? Or look at Peter MacKay, who held a range of high-profile posts, including Foreign Affairs and Justice. Any time cabinet speculation took over with the Conservatives in charge, it was assumed he would never be excluded from cabinet, simply because he was the PC leader who agreed to merge the party with the Canadian Alliance, thereby allowing Stephen Harper to lead the combined forces to victory. Never mind the bungled military procurement files or his use of a search-and-rescue helicopter to shave a couple of hours off his trip back to Ontario when his vacation was interrupted. And who can forget Chris Alexander’s deft touch with immigration matters?

Given that women are half the population, it’s downright strange that no federal government before this one has striven to put more of them into cabinet. Lots of deserving people are left out of cabinet, simply because there are too many excellent MPs from one region or another, and not all of them will make it. It’s bizarre to argue that Trudeau’s pledge to include more women in cabinet means leaving out qualified men, because the corollary is that so many women have been left out of cabinet to squeeze in men who have better fundraising networks, are better known to Ottawa-based party insiders, or know how to follow orders.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, front centre, poses for a group photo with the federal cabinet announced during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Monday, July 15, 2013. Back Row, left to right: Minister of State (Small Business and Tourism, and Agriculture) Maxime Bernier, Minister of State and Chief Government Whip John Duncan, Minister of State (Sport) Bal Gosal, Minister of State (Seniors) Alice Wong, Minister of State (Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency) Rob Moore, Minister of State (Foreign Affairs and Consular) Lynne Yelich, Minister of State (Science and Technology, and Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario) Greg Rickford, Minister of State (Social Development) Candice Bergen, Minister of State (Democratic Reform) Pierre Poilievre, Minister of State (Multiculturalism) Tim Uppal, Minister of State (Finance) Kevin Sorenson, Minister of State (Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario) Gary Goodyear, Minister of National Revenue Kerry-Lynne Findlay. Middle Row, left to right: Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Gerry Ritz, Minister of Veterans Affairs Julian Fantino, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Gail Shea, Minister of International Development and Minister for La Francophonie Christian Paradis, Minister of Labour and Minister of Status of Women Kellie Leitch, Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird, Minister of Industry James Moore, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander, Minister of State (Western Economic Diversification) Michelle Rempel, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Bernard Valcourt, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages Shelly Glover, Leader of the Government in the House of Commons Peter Van Loan, Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver, Minister of International Trade Ed Fast, Minister of Transport Lisa Raitt. Front Row, left to right: Minister of Health Rona Ambrose, Minister of National Defence Rob Nicholson, Minister of Infrastructure, C

Stephen Harper, front centre, poses for a group photo with the federal cabinet announced during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Monday, July 15, 2013. 

Neither does it necessarily mean the cabinet will be full of white people (although, honestly, did you not see the last few?). Take a look at all the qualified people in the Liberal caucus. Read the bios of some of the women. Seriously, take a look and tell me whom you’d leave out. Just as great, skilled men will get left out, excellent, skilled women would get left out without aiming to include more of them. And for what reason? Because we aren’t used to seeing gender used as a measure of cabinet’s balance?

Canada’s federal parties have a long way to go to hit gender parity and to elect a representative number of visible minorities. There are 5o women in the Liberal caucus of 184 MPs, for example. While the NDP led the way with 43 per cent female candidates (rather than quotas, they asked riding associations to look for female or visible-minority candidates), the Conservatives were only able to find enough female candidates to make up 19 per cent of their total. You can’t tell me there aren’t more smart women who would want to run if they didn’t feel the hurdles were too high to clear.

We’ll soon see how the Trudeau cabinet balances experienced MPs and new faces, and other considerations. Some will be duds, some will be new stars. Whichever women make it will undoubtedly put to rest this debate.


Cabinet is not a meritocracy. And it hasn’t been for decades.

  1. “Others don’t like the quota, which Trudeau isn’t legislating, by the way; he simply set himself a goal.”

    Trudeau promised a cabinet with 50% women. That is indeed a quota (legislated or not), and not a goal.

    “Given that women are half the population, it’s downright strange that no federal government before this one has striven to put more of them into cabinet.”

    If Trudeau’s caucus had 50% women one could possibly argue that it would be downright strange if his cabinet wasn’t 50% women. However, Trudeau’s caucus is only 27% women, which means it would be odd indeed if his cabinet has 50% women. Given those numbers, a woman has about 3 times the likelihood of making it to cabinet than a man for no other reason than being a woman.

    Andrew Coyne has a good article on this in yesterday’s National Post. The last paragraph is:
    “It would not be surprising, indeed, to find a disproportionate number of the best and the brightest among female MPs, given the remaining barriers to women’s participation in politics. But three times as many? What principle can possibly justify this?”

  2. The ‘merit’ argument is only brought out when men think women are getting ahead.

    • I wouldn’t care if the cabinet turned out to be 100% women – as long as there were sound reasons for the choices.

      Trudeau did the women who end up in his cabinet a disservice; many will be assumed to be in there simply because they are women. If he had been less precise – had he simply said “I’m going to actively seek to increase the number of women in cabinet” – and then the actual number came in around 50%, he could then have boasted about just how many remarkably qualified women his party was able to attract.

      A goal to be more inclusive, and to seek qualified candidates from outside the traditional white male pool, is laudable, and I think people would be more willing to look at this in a positive light. By affixing a hard number, he makes it a quota, and thereby calls into question the true abilities of many of the women he will end up appointing. It will be an unfair perceptual hill to climb.

      And God forbid that his numbers now come it at less than 50% for the women; if he does THAT, then he’s essentially calling the remaining women incompetent – “not even good enough to make it under a quota system.”

      Going for a more substantial number of women is a good thing. Publicly attaching a number to that goal… not so much.

      • I worked for a well respected, large company for almost 40 years which had the same issue as most companies-a disproportionate number of males. So we set out to address that. We eliminated possible hiring biases by hiring by discipline the same representation as existed on campus of were in the top 10% of their class. Frequently this resulted in a higher proportion of female hires than males. Then we scrutinized our promotions to ensure they were in a ratio similar to our work force mix. I would hope that with Trudeau’s appropriate bent to have more females in his cabinet he would have had a process to get the best available females in his caucus as well. And that came to 27% not 50%. So a logical, unbiased percentage of females in the cabinet for now should be around 27% as well.

        • LOL any other excuses you can think of?

          • Emily-your naivety never ceases to amaze me. To meet a quota where the result is disproportionate to the availability always results in an outcome that is never good.
            Before adopting the approach noted above we tried a quota and it resulted in women being put in senior positions which many subsequently asked to be removed from. The universal reason they gave was a lack of experience to do the job. It was harmful to those women as well as those they tried to manage.

        • Jerome, when I was growing up, the GG, Senate and HOC were all men. So was the Supreme Court…..and even all the deities.

          So were the CEOs, and millionaires and doctors

          A solid wall of men

          And nobody blinked an eyelash…..or even noticed

          And we were 52% of the population then too

          So cry me a river, honey

          • Emilyone, it appears from your last comment that your stance is at least partly vindictive; I assume you hail from the branch of feminism that believes men in the present should, in some sense, pay for past injustices to women?

            I also suspect you’re a troll that purposefully antagonizes others by engaging in intellectual dishonesty, but I’ll judge that from your next response.

          • It’s hilarious that you still expect a sincere response from anyone.

            When an opponent of yours in the debate here presents a 150 word post and you dismissively respond with a “LOL any other excuses you can think of?”, any sane person can realize that you’re the one wasting time.

        • LOL nope sorry Jerome.

          People don’t believe in principles because of a troubled life

          And every position anyone takes…..that is different from yours…..antagonizes you. LOL

          You did not do that in your ‘company’,, and women n droves didn’t come to you asking to be rescued

          Be serious

          • It’s not Jerome, it’s Patrick, for starters. Nice straw-man argument, by the way. Now I’m certain that you are a troll, in which case, there’s no value in attempting to have a reasonable discourse with you. This is because you ignored any valid point which previous posters have brought up, choosing instead to write inflammatory and petty comments. Hope you had your fun, troll.

          • Well Patrick when you’ve been here for as many years as I have…..you’ll know
            how to post comments when the ‘reply’ function dies

            However, since you haven”t an argument…..attacking me is always the next best thing……..for Cons /sexists

          • You see, unlike you, I actually believe in the truth.

            I claimed you were a troll, and I clearly stated why you fit the definition of a troll like a glove. You on the other hand, called me a Con (which is neither true, nor an insult) and a sexist (which is mere slander).

            Keep trying, troll.

          • I’m not the topic Patrick……cabinet appts are

            You’re just wasting time

    • Thanks to Patrick Emily for recognizing what you are. In addition to troll I would have added the adjectives-deaf and dumb!!

  3. The 43 US Presidents before Barack Obama were all white men between the ages of 42 and 69 at the time of their inauguration. Was this racism? Was this gender bias? Well, they were elected not appointed so if there is blame to go around it has to be shared by many. And yet, even as a white man, I feel the sting of discrimination. You see, I’m balding. Look up George W. Bush on Wikipedia and start moving backwards in history from one presidential portrait to his predecessor. Where are the bald presidents? We are talking about men of a certain age, there should be a number of bald presidents, should there not? There is Eisenhower and there is…well, there is Eisenhower. Obviously, there is a conspiracy to keep bald men from becoming President or network news anchors. I’m so glad I live in a country where Peter Mansbridge can rise to such an esteemed level.

    Seriously, there are many reasons why people do or don’t get involved in politics. There are many reasons why they do or don’t get elected. Women have had suffrage for roughly 100 years and they’ve had roughly 50% of the voting power ever since. There was nothing to prevent women from seizing significant power through the ballot box, whether it be in elections, in choosing candidates at the riding level or even forming a women’s party if it was seriously felt that the mainstream parties were not affording women opportunities. There is power in democracy. Indeed wome are becoming a larger part of our politcal process year after year. More and more candidates, more and more MP’s. The idea that power – in this case numbers in cabinet – should be achieved by some sort of quota is ridiculous, anti-democratic and in violation of the Canadian values that most people who favour this idea claim to represent.

    I live in Nova Scotia where we elected 11 Liberals in 11 ridings by huge margins. A hobo with a junior high education could have won in Nova Scotia in 2015 if he/she had been flying Liberal colours. There was only one woman. So from what I am reading in this article Bernadette Jordan should receive greater consideration for the cabinet than Scott Brison or Geoff Regan or any of the other eight male MP’s. If having 50% of his cabient be female was important shouldn’t Trudeau have gone out of his way to make sure that 50% of his candidates were women too. Of course that would have meant interfering with the democratic process at the constituency level.

    Call me naive but I believe that people should be judged on their merits. I’m not quite naive enough to believe that merit is always the first or only consideration when forming a cabinet but I would like to believe that it is a serious consideration. Of course the title of this article suggests the author doesn’t care about the notion of merit. Is this a new Canadian value? Is this the value our new government and its supporters are fordwarding. The heck with all notions of equality and merit, we bring you quotas! That is inspirational.

    Who else gets a quota? Is this just for women? What about French Canadians? Shouldn’t be too hard. What about Natives? What about quadrapeligic cross dressers with poor fashion sense? I certainly hope there will be a quota for 50-something balding white men like me. No offense intended to anyone but there is no limit to this kind of thinking. And pardon me for saying so but the whole thing smacks of a massive rationalization to defend an indefensible idea that has no merit, pun intended.

    Putting aside for the moment that the whole concept is anti-democratic – and has been forwarded by the man who just became Prime Minister – the rationalization forwarded by Ms. Payton has, among its many ethical and logical flaws one serious, basic flaw: representation is not the same as a quota. Governing parties have often sought regional representation in the cabinet, that is true. Throughout Canadian history there have occasionally been Senators appointed to cabinet to achieve representation from an area where the sitting government did not do well electorally. The most recent example was Michael Fortier from ’06 to ’08. However, representation is not the same as a quota. 27% of the Liberal caucus is female, one should expect considerable representation. Making the leap from representation to a quota is a dangerous precedent.

    Ms. Payton has put forth an argument that merit has not been the only reason why someone was appointed to the cabinet in the past and drawn the conclusion that merit is not a significant part of the equation and further extrapolated that somehow justifies a quota.

    The mathematical formula would be as follows: (Goal of Equality) minus (Merit) = A Quota

    Wow, I am excited/terrified to see what other twists of logic I can look forward to over the next four years. Self-righteous rationalizations to advance narrow goals fed by “politcal correctness”, yeah!

    Shawn Coates, Halifax

  4. While Cabinet may not be a meritocracy it has never been a premeditated sexist organization…until now. Cabinet may have been based on patronage, loyalty and sometimes even merit but now it is based on sex.

    By making this an election promise based solely on gender Trudeau exposed the selection of his Cabinet to a potential Charter challenge. While it is illegal under the Charter to discriminate based on sex it is not if by doing so you are “ameliorating” a disadvantaged group. This is the only basis under which Trudeau can hold true to anti-discrimination under the Charter.

    Simply put as a feminist if Trudeau believes women are systematically oppressed then a Charter challenge would require that he prove “women” are a disadvantaged group. That is the ONLY way that you can justify Justin’s election promise and not have it go against the Charter.

    • “t has never been a premeditated sexist organization”

      AHAHAHAHAHA…..it always was

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