Choosing a cabinet is one of the hardest tasks that faces any Prime Minister. One early Canadian Prime Minister facing the inevitable second guessing about (his) choices lamented: “Give me better wood and I will make you a better cabinet.” (Source: parli.ca)
The point in dredging up this old saw is not to criticize any particular choices Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made this week in appointing his new Cabinet; but rather to remind you, dear reader, that the starting point in cabinet making is what cards you have been dealt. In this election, three female cabinet ministers were defeated (for various reasons) and one stood aside and didn’t run again. With a pledge to maintain gender parity, the Prime Minister had to dig deeper into that side of his Caucus. There are other considerations of course (in no particular ranked order): geography, competence, rewarding success or loyalty, or pushing aside (to continue our lumber analogy) dead wood or political liabilities.
If you are a prime minister looking to the years ahead and your possible retirement (after say winning only a second minority government), you might look to who you fancy to take your place and whether that someone needs a higher profile or whether you should, by your cabinet appointments, create a little competition for others who see themselves in the race down the road. If you are a Prime Minster who wonders if he will have the stomach or opportunity to lead his troops into another battle, you look to your legacy and what your time in office will have meant. You will want those legacy matters in good hands. Many good cabinet prospects were left on the back benches. Prime Minister Chretien used to threaten his cabinet by reminding them that he had a strong “B” Team. Perhaps Justin Trudeau will do the same.
We see much signalling (virtue and otherwise) in the composition of the cabinet, but priority setting as well in some of the double and triple barrelled Ministries just announced. These priorities are clearly: climate, Indigenous relations, housing, mental health, health care funding, and addressing the seemingly endless sexual misconduct allegations in the Canadian armed forces. Whether there are too many priorities remains to be seen. We will learn more once the Ministerial “Mandate Letters” are issued, setting out priorities in detail. These letters are (typically) made public shortly after a new Cabinet is put in place.
Another less noticed development are staff changes in the Prime Minister’s Office. There exists a serious policy shop (in Singapore) called the Centre for Evidence and Implementation. Perhaps they were consulted; but the evidence was in that the Prime Minister’s Office needed a crisper staff structure for better coordination among government departments and smoother implementation of policy. These staffing announcements look to address that.
The new minority Parliament resumes on November 22. That’s when we’ll really get a sense of how “new” this new government is.