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The best qualified cabinet — since all the other ones

Does it matter that a doctor now heads up the Health ministry, while a lawyer runs Justice? We checked the history books to find out.


 
Justin Trudeau is sworn-in as Canada's 23rd prime minister during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa November 4, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Justin Trudeau is sworn-in as Canada’s 23rd prime minister during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa November 4, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Beauty, it is said, is in the eye of the beholder. So too are the qualifications that mark a member of Parliament as “cabinet material.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has had to balance a lot of considerations in naming his new ministers. Along with his explicit promises of gender parity, generational change and having an executive team that “looks like Canada,” there are the political imperatives like regional representation, a French-English balance, and past favours and service that needs to be rewarded.

His 30 picks—15 women and 15 men (the PM is the 31st cabinet member)—seem to hit all those notes, with a mix of experienced veterans (Ralph Goodale, Stéphane Dion, Scott Brison, Carolyn Bennett), rising party stars (Chrystia Freeland, Jody Wilson-Raybould, Mélanie Joly) and fresh, young unknowns (Bardish Chagger, Maryam Monsef.)

Related: Get to know Justin Trudeau’s first cabinet 

The fact that thousands of people actually packed the grounds outside Rideau Hall to watch large TV screens broadcasting the swearing-in ceremony of a Canadian federal cabinet—an event that even those being given their ministerial cars are at best ambivalent about—speaks to the public’s desire for change. There is something dangerously close to excitement (or maybe it’s giddiness) about the promise of a new, cuddlier, less-prickish type of government in Ottawa. And the plaudits for his selections are already rolling in. Many seem to be based off the assumption that ministerial competence might be related to past employment experience. Jane Philpott, the minister of health, is a doctor! Kirsty Duncan, minister of science, is a scientist! Marie-Claude Bibeau, now in charge of International Development, once worked for CIDA! Surely, to some extent, that will prove to be true. Bill Morneau, the new finance minister, should be well served by his Bay Street experience. Ditto for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, a decorated former member of the Canadian Forces and Afghan vet. And Carla Qualtrough, a swimmer and three-time Paralympic medallist, seems well-qualified to run both Sports and Persons with Disabilities.

But to suggest that this somehow sets Trudeau’s cabinet apart from all the others that have come before is just wrong. The team that Stephen Harper named when he won his majority in 2011 boasted at least six ministers who had direct and relevant experience to their portfolios. They included Jim Flaherty, who had been Ontario’s minister of finance before moving to Ottawa in the same capacity; Rob Nicholson, a lawyer who was both the attorney-general and the minister of justice; Gerry Ritz, a farmer turned agriculture minister; and even Harper himself, an economist by trade, overseeing a government whose greatest priority was the economy.

Paul Martin’s first cabinet had seemingly well-suited picks like David Anderson, an environmental consultant, was minister of the environment, and Irwin Cotler and Anne McLellan, both former law professors, were appointed as minister of justice and solicitor general, respectively.

Jean Chrétien tapped experienced businessman Paul Martin to be his minister of finance, diplomat Roy MacLaren to be his minister of international trade, and lawyers Allan Rock and Herb Gray for the Justice and solicitor general posts. And by the same admittedly subjective standards, Brian Mulroney’s first cabinet should have been the best qualified of all with nine clean fits. They included John Wise, a dairy farmer who took charge of agriculture, Frank Oberle, a former logger who was in charge of forestry, Joe Clark, a former prime minister in the External Affairs portfolio, George Hees, a Second World War hero looking after the interests of veterans, and Don Mazankowski, a former auto dealer as minister of transport.

But honestly, it all doesn’t mean much. Like the fine print says, past performance is not a reliable indicator of future outcomes. Julian Fantino, who ably headed up both the Toronto Police Service and the Ontario Provincial Police, was a cabinet disaster at Veterans’ Affairs. Gordon O’Connor, a former brigadier general, couldn’t cut it at Defence. Brian Tobin—a former journalist, for God’s sake!—rode his stunts and success at Fisheries to a job as premier of Newfoundland. And who is to say that Jim Carr, a former oboeist with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, won’t be the best natural resources minister Canada has ever had?

Change has come to Ottawa. Maybe not so much around the cabinet table, but at least at its head. After 15 lawyers, three journalists, two civil servants, a doctor and an economist, the new Prime Minister is the first to list his occupation as teacher. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives spent years and millions of dollars trying to plant the idea that Justin Trudeau’s thin resumé meant he “wasn’t up to the job.” Voters disagreed. Starting today, we all get to find out.

The Trudeau cabinet

Our gallery introduces you to the new government’s ministry.


 

The best qualified cabinet — since all the other ones

  1. Some authorities of public administration and government agree with former opinions that cabinet members should NOT be experts in their area, except for the Attorney General and Solicitor general who should be members of the bar. The argument is that the views should be those of citizens but on the advice of experts.

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