How to make a cabinet

In Canada it involves a complex mix of postal codes and chromosomes

How to make a cabinet

Peter Kent, Diane Ablonczy, Ted Menzies and Julian Fantino were sworn in | Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Parliamentary traditions matter, and so what would a cabinet shuffle be without the ritual counting of the genitalia? Hardly had the Prime Minister had time to repeat his lengthy remarks of self-congratulation in English before the Liberals’ Marcel Proulx was lamenting the “missed opportunity” to appoint more women to the cabinet, there being just 10 in a cabinet of 38, or 26.3 per cent—although if you don’t count the Prime Minister (on the arguable grounds that he can’t help being a man) that’s 10 out of 37, or 27.0 per cent. Just so you know.

Mind you, the insult to women was nothing beside the shocking affront to Quebec, which was held to just five ministers (13.5 per cent). According to the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair, this showed the Prime Minister had not made the province a “priority.”

It’s tempting to tell these two gentlemen to get stuffed. But they have a point. You can’t very well criticize people for obsessing on gender, region and other identity markers unless some other criterion is available to them: unless you have reason to believe that anyone else in the political-media complex is operating on some other principle, such as, I don’t know, merit.

But of course they aren’t. What the reporters want to know afterwards is not who these people are and what they stand for and how well qualified they are to govern, but whether this means we’ll be having an election and what this portends for the battle for suburban Toronto and how many women from Alberta are in the cabinet anyway? And the reason they are fully justified in asking these questions is that those are very likely the sorts of things that were on the Prime Minister’s mind when he picked them. Which, while we’re at it, is probably just as well.

It would be different if cabinet mattered. If cabinet mattered—if we still had cabinet government in this country, or ministers with real decision-making power—then it would matter a great deal that people in positions of executive responsibility were chosen not for their talents or their experience, but by reference to a complex mix of chromosomes and postal codes. But as the one does not matter, neither does the other.

Mind you, perhaps cabinet no longer matters because successive prime ministers have used it to curry favour with various constituencies, rather than to govern the country: which came first, the expedient chicken or the calculating egg? Either way, all you really need to know about the cabinet is its size: 38 (37, not counting the Prime Minister).

As far as I have been able to tell, Canada has the largest cabinet of any government in the democratic world: possibly even the undemocratic world. It is 50 per cent larger than Britain’s, 73 per cent larger than Italy’s, and more than twice as large as that of the United States of America. It is also more than twice as large as the cabinet Mackenzie King employed to cope with the Great Depression and fight a world war. But then, all King had to work with were men of the calibre of C. D. Howe, Paul Martin Sr. and Louis St. Laurent. Whereas today’s much larger cabinet can accommodate the likes of Gary Lunn (minister of state for sport) and Denis Lebel (minister of state, economic development agency of Canada for the regions of Quebec).

A cabinet of 37 ministers and ministers of state out of a caucus of 142 (not counting the Prime Minister) would seem to indicate that the average Tory MP, if he keeps his nose clean and doesn’t annoy the PM, has a one in four chance of being appointed to cabinet. But since in fact rather more than 37 members of caucus will at one time or another be appointed to cabinet, what with the occasional mobbed-up girlfriend or sudden offer of a job at a major bank, then the odds and the incentive for nose-cleaning are even better than that: more like one in three.

If you are a member of a desirable demographic group, the odds verge on the inevitable. Of the 23 Tory women in the House of Commons, the subject of the Proulx monody, fully nine are in cabinet (Sen. Marjorie LeBreton is the 10th), while Quebec’s representation, with five ministers out of 11 Tory MPs, displays an almost Mulcairian sense of priority. As for Conservative women from Quebec, Josée Verner makes it one for two: I can’t think what Sylvie Boucher must have done to avoid being appointed.

Which is how you wind up with a cabinet of 38, with fanciful titles like minister of international co-operation and minister of Canadian heritage and official languages: because the more ways you seek to portion out the spoils—for no interest or region is content anymore merely to be represented in Parliament, the role of MPs having dwindled to an insignificance that makes the most junior minister seem supernovular—the more offices in total there must be to divide among them: a principle familiar to students of mathematics as the least common multiple.

Oh, I suppose I should note: there was a cabinet shuffle. Someone was appointed minister of the environment. A couple of other people were made junior ministers. Possibly they are competent people. Possibly not. But really, does it matter?

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