Idea of a “Merit Based Cabinet” Ignores Politics and History of Canada

Conservative Cabinet, 1886 (Library and Archives Canada)

Conservative Cabinet, 1886 (Library and Archives Canada)

On Wednesday, November 4th Justin Trudeau and his new Cabinet will be sworn in at Rideau Hall. What marks this swearing in ceremony as historic is that it will be the first federal cabinet in Canadian history to feature an equal number of men and women. Yet if we are to believe some of the more shrill political commentators in this country, Trudeau’s Cabinet will be Canada’s first “affirmative action cabinet”.  Others like Andrew Coyne have also warned that Trudeau’s actions move Canadian politics further away from achieving the goal of meritocracy. Ultimately, all these arguments, whether forwarded in print or on television, boil down to the basic idea of, “why can’t we just appoint the best person for the job?” However, this argument fails to grasp the fundamental nature of cabinet making and cabinet governance in Canada, dating back to the days of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir. John A. Macdonald.

In 1864 at the Charlottetown Conference, Macdonald signed the guestbook for what is now Province House (and the PEI Legislature) as John Alexander Macdonald and listed his occupation as cabinet maker. A clever joke for sure, but one that also recognized the political reality of governing the northern portion of North America.  Macdonald’s years in the fractious and divided Legislature of the United Provinces of Canada taught him the importance of taking a variety of factors into account when crafting cabinets. While gender was not a consideration, language, residency and religion all needed to be represented at the cabinet table. Indeed, Macdonald’s first cabinet, appointed shortly after Confederation in 1867, contained an equal number of Protestants and Catholics; six each. Such an equal division made perfect sense, the country was fairly evenly split between the two Christian faiths and Macdonald wanted to ensure that both groups felt their interests were represented in the federal government.

While the importance of having an equal split between Catholics and Protestants in cabinet has declined, the idea that cabinet needs to be representative of Canada as a whole has largely been accepted as a governing principle; one that Prime Ministers ignore at their peril. Think of John Diefenbaker, who despite winning 50 seats in Quebec in 1958, failed to appoint a francophone to any key ministries. Quebecers rightly saw this slight as evidence of Diefenbaker’s larger indifference (some would say hostility) to francophone Quebec interests’ and in 1962 punished the Progressive Conservative Party, electing only 14 MPs from the party.

Stephen Harper, when appointing his first cabinet in 2006, similarly grappled with the political necessity of regional representation. Achieving such representation was particularly difficult for Harper, as no Conservative Party MPs came from a major urban centre and only 10 were from Quebec. In response, Harper enticed former Liberal Industry Minister David Emmerson (who held the urban ridding of Vancouver Kingsway) to join the Conservatives, while also appointing Michael Fortier as Minister of International Trade and as a Quebec Senator, thus making Fortier eligible to serve as a Minister of the Crown. While many people criticized Harper’s decision to appoint a senator after promising to only appoint those chosen by provincial elections, most observers recognized the political imperative of regional representation that compelled Harper to act as he did.

So why is gender any different? If the argument is that men can represent women’s interests just as effectively, then why don’t we apply that logic to language or regional issues? Why do we need Francophones or British Columbians in cabinet? Can’t Anglo-Ontarians represent their interests just as effectively? Nobody would ever attempt to advance such a proposition, yet in the past week, a number of political commentators in this country have made just such an argument, just change language to gender. Canadians as a whole should be equally incredulous.

Opponents of Trudeau’s policy have also suggested that enforcing gender parity is the beginning of a slippery slope, suggesting that in the future it will be necessary to include ministers from every possible minority group. While I would argue that having a variety of voices and experiences at the cabinet table makes for better governance and more just outcomes, the basic point is even more obvious. Women don’t represent a small section of the population, rather, they are the majority of people in the country. Gender parity in cabinet is simply saying that literally half the country deserves an equal voice in governing the country as the other half. Not actually a radical proposal when you think about it that way.

An even more fundamental problem with advocates of the “merit only” view of cabinet formation is that they either don’t understand how Canada is governed, or they are feigning ignorance for the purpose of making a political point. As Coyne argues in his National Post piece, cabinet is important because it is intended to governor the country and that is certainly true. However, governing goes beyond simply managing one’s ministry. Due to the centralized nature of Canadian governance, cabinet, and particularly cabinet committees, are where the majority of important decisions are made. Certainly a minister on the Priorities and Planning Committee has more power and influence than anyone else in parliament. Ministers and cabinet as a whole are not only making technical decisions about how best to run the country, they are making policy decisions based on values and as far as I know, there  are no objective standards for assessing values.

Obviously there needs to be a minimum level of competency for one to hold a cabinet post. Merit (in this case defined as management skills) is not all together unimportant, but it is one of a panopoly of factors a Prime Minister needs to take into account when crafting their cabinet. To suggest that it should be  – or ever has been – the only consideration is to ignore Canada’s history. To suggest that it is the most important factor that needs to be emphasized above all overlooks the important political role ministers in Canada play.




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