Cut it in half and no one would notice

As we wait for Stephen Harper to appoint a new cabinet, it is worth recalling a point I’ve made before: we have, and will continue to have unless he does something surprising, the largest cabinet in the democratic world. Or at least among the major developed democracies: apparently Nigeria is threatening to beat us.

Harper’s last cabinet had 38 members: 27 ministers, plus 11 ministers of state. (In Canada these are considered full members of Cabinet: there is no longer any effective difference between Cabinet and the ministry. It was indeed Harper who erased the distinction in October 2008, when he converted what were previously secretaries of state to ministers of state.)

The US Cabinet currently contains 16 members, including the Vice-President. There are, in addition, six “cabinet-level officers,” none of whom has executive responsibility for any department.

The British Cabinet consists of 23 ministers (one of whom is unpaid), including the Prime Minister. Five other officials “attend cabinet meetings,” but are not considered full members of cabinet. Neither is the Attorney General, although he sometimes attends.

Some other cabinets of note:

Germany : 16 ministers, including the Chancellor.

Japan : 17 ministers, including the Prime Minister.

France : 16 full ministers, including the Prime Minister, plus 7 “ministres auprès d’un ministre” and 8 secretaries of state.

Italy : 25 ministers, including the Prime Minister. 13 have departmental responsibility; 11 are ministers without portfolio.

Australia : 20 ministers, including the Prime Minister.

New Zealand : 20 ministers, including the Prime Minister, plus 8 ministers outside cabinet, some from supporting parties in the coalition.

CODA: Harper does not preside, however, over the largest cabinet in Canadian history. That honour goes to Brian Mulroney, by a whisker: at its largest, his was 39. That’s more than Macdonald (15 at the most), Laurier (17), King (20) Diefenbaker (24), Pearson (28), or even Trudeau (37 by the end, but fewer than 30 for most of his time in office) somehow struggled by on.

SPECIAL BONUS PAK: Here’s what a slimmed-down cabinet could look like (revised from earlier version):

  • Prime Minister
  • Justice/ Attorney General
  • Public Safety/Solicitor General
  • Defence (inc Veterans)
  • Foreign Affairs & Trade
  • Intergovernmental Affairs
  • Aboriginal Affairs
  • Immigration
  • Finance (inc. Revenue, Treasury Board, Financial Services)
  • Industry
  • Resources (inc. Energy, Mining, Forestry, Fisheries, Agriculture)
  • Infrastructure (inc Transportation, Telecoms, Public Works)
  • Environment & Public Health
  • Work & Incomes (inc Labour, Training, Unemployment Insurance, Income Assistance, Pensions)

There’s also:

  • Government House Leader
  • Senate Leader

but strictly speaking these aren’t supposed to be cabinet posts. But even if they were, you’d still come in well under 20. And even if you split up the Resources and Infrastructure portfolios into two or three departments each, you’re barely at it.

BUT WAIT THERE”S MORE: I notice that Australia combines “Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry” in one post, “Resources and Energy” in another. Japan also combines Farming, Fishing & Forests under one minister, while France does the first two.




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Cut it in half and no one would notice

  1. Well, the difference between Canada and the rest of the democratic world is the purpose that the cabinet serves. In Canada a cabinet post is a way for the PM to give $50,000 extra to an MP as a bonus. In the rest of the democratic world cabinet shares the responsibility for governing the country. 

  2. Which ones would you eliminate? 

    • Well, he only seemed to let about five of them speak, so the rest are, presumably, extraneous meat puppets. Dropping them would be a good start on the money he needs to cut in order to meet his promised spending reductions.

      Personally, I’d like to see Baird and Clement go – even though that would further reduce the number of speaking ministers – as I really don’t see the need for court jesters.

      • Well, I meant ministries not personalities. Which depts would you cut? 

        •  I am not sure difference between MInister of State and Minister. But most of the Minister of States could be eliminated with only slight increases to other portfolios. Get rid of Sport, Small business and Tourism, Seniors, Democratic Reform, Western Economic Diversification. That is five that I don’t think would seriously impact the government.

        •  Cutting cabinet ministers is not the same thing as cutting departments. Just consolidating the work of different departments and ministries under fewer cabinet ministers with statutory authority. Like everywhere else.

          • Don’t nitpik like that…you know what was meant. 

          • It’s not nitpicking. And I really don’t know what you meant. You can eliminate ministers without eliminating departments. For example, Deputy Ministers of Natural Resources and Environment could both report to one minister for “Resources and Environment.” You wouldn’t loose the work of the department, you would just loose the “waste” of an additional cabinet level post.

          • Technically, you can’t ‘cut’ a political cabinet in half either, it’s a manner of speaking.

            Like I said, don’t nitpik. Address the topic.

          • What? What is a manner of speaking? Why can’t you “cut” a cabinet in half – by which we mean, reduce the number of ministers by half.

            Speaking of being unclear, lets take a look at your original comment:
            “which ones would you eliminate?”

            What are the “ones” you refer to? Cabinet posts or departments, or something else, since not all cabinet ministers are in charge of a department?

          • If you don’t want to discuss the topic question, don’t post. 

          • I am discussing the topic question, (see my other substantive post below). It is you who is being oblique. I’m trying to respond to your original vague comment.

            Here. Be it resolved that; The federal cabinet is too big. I agree with
            Coyne. Cut it half, ie. eliminate half the positions in cabinet. Discuss.

        • I was going to snidely suggest any ministry where the Minister is not allowed to speak could be rolled into the PMO. However, I see Coyne has updated his article with a suggestion for a slimmed-down cabinet that looks eminently sensible to me (and saves me from doing the intellectual work myself). So I’ll take the lazy route and say “What Coyne said!”

          • LOL yeah, for the most part, but I’d add science and technology, because that’s vital. 

          • Well, maybe to you and me… but we are talking about a Harper government. “Silence and Astrology”? 

          • LOL very true. A creationist in charge of the science ministry says it all 

  3. “Cut it in half and no one would notice”

    I disagree. I bet competency and responsibility would improve if there were fewer ministers. Large cabinets create huge overlaps of responsibilities and if everyone is responsible, no is responsible, which allows PM to dominate.

    • Sounds like something Stephen Harper would say circa 2006.

      By god, I think he said almost exactly that!  

  4.  One reason that Canada has large Cabinets relatively speaking is the “requirement” of regional representation.

    In the United States, nobody cares if the entire cabinet for most of US history comes from the aristrocracy with degrees from Harvard, Yale, or Princeton.

    Canada is more democratic than most of the comparables because more voices are required and allowed at the Cabinet table.

    •  Canada is more democratic than most of the comparables because more voices are required and allowed at the Cabinet table.

      Isn’t that what the House of Commons is for?

    • And only Harper has figured this out after all this time or did we add a couple of regions that didn’t need to be represented before? Why does he need the largest cabinet in our entire history? Especially when he was very critical of Martin for having too large a cabinet.

      Your comment of Canada being more democratic isn’t even worth commenting on, it’s such hogwash.

    • One reason that Canada has large Cabinets relatively speaking is the “requirement” of regional representation

      He needs more than 30 ministers to satisfy “regional representation”???  How many “regions” are you counting?  ‘Cause I’m pretty sure you could have a cabinet rep from each and every province and territory and still only need 13 ministers.

  5. With the limited talent pool among the CPC MPs, it is a useful strategy to appoint as many marginally competent and clearly incompetent MPs to the cabinet as possible, so that the position of current target for ridicule can be passed around, avoiding overexposure and essentially providing a moving target for the limited attention span of Canadian media.

    Harper is to be appreciated for his post-modern approach to cabinetry.  

    • He’s just too meta for the rest of us. 

  6. If we’re modifying ministries, we might want to get inspiration elsewhere.

    For example, Australia has a ministry for broadband and the digital economy. That might be worth exploring.

    And they have a minister for deregulation. A whole ministry devoted to deregulation! The Tories would get tarred and feathered if they dared start a ministry like that.

    • “…has a ministry for broadband and the digital economy … minister for deregulation”

      I reckon Minister of Deregulation should start by abolishing Minister for Broadband. I have long thought we should have Libertarian Minister – someone who constantly questions whether new law/tax is really necessary – but I like the sounds of Minister of Deregulation.

  7.  I think dropping to twenty would work well. Some of your amalgams to get down to 14 sound pretty unwieldy. One would think that a minister with that broad a portfolio would only tend to focus on a few areas at any given time, contributing to policy drift if there are several areas that require executive attention.

    Maybe the answer is to better structure the ministry so that ministers report into an executive minister. Like President of the Treasury Board reporting to the Minister of Finance. 

    Of course, if all these roles are just window dressing then it is just a waste of money.

  8. There are far too many MP’s and MLA’s in Canada. Federally the parliament should be no more than about 200 MP’s and be pegged at that number. Forget all that baloney about representing their constituency, the main function of a backbencher is to raise money for the party. The main function of a cabinet minister is to obey the PM and heed the demands of lobbiests and the really big money men.

  9. Up until now Harper has had to work hard to keep the tight control he has over his caucus. I’m guessing this was a way to reward some, not tick off others and generally speaking create the appearance of opportunity for backbenchers, so they keep their mouths shut in the hopes of a position of note.

    It doesn’t otherwise make much sense to me.

  10. Transportation and public works would be a fairly heavy portfolio – if you split the ‘government services’ off of public works and rolled it into another department, I think it would be doable. I also think combining finance, revenue and treasury board would be a fairly hefty ministry. Perhaps ‘Treasury board and Government Services’ makes sense.

    While it may not be very politic to suggest, I think rolling aboriginal affairs into your proposed health and environment portfolio would be something to consider. I would then split off the ‘northern development’ portfolio from DIAND and roll it into the proposed infrastructure ministry.  

    Also worth pointing out, for fans of regional representation, that one could appoint a provincial minister for each province – minister without portfolio or secretary of state responsible for the province – and still have a relatively streamlined cabinet with this proposal.

  11. Whatever would we do without our Minister for Democratic Reform and his two media releases per year? Is he ready to announce another blue ribbon panel yet? And don’t we need a Minister of Religious Freedom to go with the new office?

    • I would think a Minister of Sexual Orientations and Minister of Reproduction is in order with Harper’s clan.

  12. Also note that you’ve done away with Canadian Heritage and Official Languages. That by design? 

    • . . . and just imagine the predictable outcry from the opposition parties over those moves.  “Harper Hates French!”  “Harper Hates Canada – Even More than Before!”  “Further Proof of Harpers’s Canada-Hating Agenda!”

    • I’m keeping it in reserve, as a bargaining chip. “Oh, all *right*, you can have Heritage back. But we cap the cabinet at 16. Deal?”

  13. Operating with a lean cabinet and selecting ministers strictly on the basis of merit would be two characteristics that should hold great appeal to anyone with a streak of conservatism in them.

    I’m hopeful, yet at the same time I’m prepared to be disappointed.

  14. Not that I disagree about the bloated size of our cabinet, but the comparison to other countries should take into account the size of their legislature. I have a feeling Australia’s and NZ HofC are smaller than Canada’s, and therefore their cabinets might be closer to ours in proportion.

  15. What about science and technology?  That’s vital.

    • We’re getting an office of religious freedom instead!

      Next up, National Creation Museum. 

      • Yes, that’s what worries me.

  16. Not true that no-one would notice. This is what you get when the most important discussions about cabinet appointments are “which regions got the most? Which regions got shafted? How many women? How many minorities? How many aboriginals?”

    The US can get away with 16 cabinet posts because they don’t bitch and moan about which of the 50 states is not represented in Cabinet, or which special interest group has been most maligned by the selection process. The US doesn’t treat cabinet making as an affirmative action exercise; at least, not to the extent that we do here.

  17. 50K extra a year, plus all the limo rides you could ever want.

  18. This would require a government dedicated to fiscal responsibility and a smaller bureaucracy: the Harper Government™ is not so inclined!

  19.  For his next piece, Mr. Coyne will square off against Mr. Wherry and argue that since cabinet is where the real action takes place, the non-cabinet portion of the H o C should be cut in half or eliminated all together. 

  20. Add one more, did anybody notice? 

  21. I think it is important to note that the UK defines Cabinet members and Ministers differently. So while there may be only 22 members of cabinet, there are roughly 120 ministers in the Government. 

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