As you’ve no doubt read by now, the Harper regime has now fallen one short of Brian Mulroney in the race for the largest Cabinet ever. This has created the predictable wave of complaints about out-of-control Parliamentary patronage. Slipping by unnoticed was the continuing decline in Harper’s commitment to a promise he made back in 2006: that there would only be ministers with genuine departments, not trivial “ministers of state” and such, because everyone in Cabinet deserved to be equal. Everyone from left to right seems disappointed by the bloated size of the Cabinet in Harper’s new government.
However, I’d like to go in a slightly different direction by asking a couple of deeper questions that the media is either unable or unwilling to. First, what is a proper Cabinet size for Canada? Second, what exactly do we want from Cabinet ministers, anyways? Our system works on the fiction that a couple of dozen people can run the country, and that one person alone (the Prime Minister) can make an informed decision on every important issue. This is obviously senseless. Back in 1997, Stephen Harper wrote an important essay saying that prime ministers should share power and that it was “anachronistic” to run a government like “a military regiment under a single commander with almost total power.” Now that he has total power himself, apparently he feels differently.
They seem like easy questions to answer — until you set about actually trying to answer them, don’t they? It is common knowledge in Ottawa that even most ministers have relatively miniscule authority. The Prime Minister’s Office, which Harper’s greatest nemesis Pierre Trudeau began to transform from a minor clerical service into a powerful department in its own right, now calls virtually all the shots. Virtually every opportunity for a public statement is vetted in advance and lines are prepared by a combination of civil servants in the Privy Council Office, Conservative insiders in the Prime Minister’s Office, and (depending on the circumstances) a combination of civil servants and Conservative insiders in the relevant Minister’s office.
In a sense, then, the increasing size of the Cabinet is a wonderful distraction. Although plenty of people are complaining about the size of the Cabinet, very few are actually pushing farther to get at the real story, which is that the Cabinet as a whole has less power than before. The Prime Minister has always had more power in the Canadian system than the President has in the American system, and certain ministers have always been more powerful than others. Yet Harper and several of the central ministers, like Jason Kenney and Jim Flaherty, are now running the most centralized, secretive government in the history of the country.
The problem with the Cabinet is not Harper’s alone, however. As we all know, people don’t become, say, the Minister of Health because they are medical professionals. The stated rationale for making Julian Fantino minister of seniors (a post he has just been replaced in, incidentally) was that he was old. While this does make more sense than appointing a young person to the job on the grounds that they aren’t old, it still makes about as much sense as saying someone is qualified to be Minister of Industry because they’ve been employed before, or Minister of Education because they went to school.
Now, the Canadian Cabinet has a long history of being unskilled, but we used to get around that by leaving ministers at their posts long enough for them to become experts. They arrive in an office, for the most part, with no real experience in the particular area of work. Most of the major departments are massive, and deal with an extraordinary large range of issues. It takes a couple of years just to understand how the system works. But within three years, inevitably, they’re moved on — up, down, or out of the Cabinet. In practice the minister can make a few top-level decisions, maybe choose one or two specific issues to concentrate on, and handle any issue that climbs to the level of being a “crisis” (a word that is hideously over-used in politics), but most of the heavy lifting is done either by unelected bureaucrats or by unelected party insiders. Since the bureaucracy has decided to hide behind their version of the Nuremberg Defence (that they just “loyally implement” policy), this means that in practice most decisions are made either by incompetent ministers or unelected partisan ideologues. In some cases, incompetent ministers are partisan ideologues themselves, which only complicates the problem.
This problem has grown as Canada grew. Although both the general population and the size of the bureaucracy has grown by orders of magnitude, and issues are now everyday problems in government that John A. Macdonald never dreamed of making policy for, like healthcare, the size of the Cabinet is only a little over twice as big as it was in the 1870s. I do Indian Affairs history in real life. By the end of the century, there were dozens of people in the Inside Service of this department. It was small enough that the Minister of the Interior could run the Department as a side project of his own, with most of the decisions being made independently (not necessarily well) by bureaucrats. Now are thousands of bureaucrats, but still only one minister.
The problem doesn’t stop with Cabinet ministers, though. We persist in the illusion that the Prime Minister can make informed decisions about every important policy issue like the benign dictator that our system says he is. Obviously this is patently false. Assuming the Prime Minister works 70 hours a week but spends two-thirds of that time chairing meetings, attending Parliament, giving speeches, and so on, basically he’s doing the real work of running the country (learning about an issue, weighing the options, and making a decision) on a part-time basis. And that’s true even if the prime minister is someone you like, ostensibly making decisions that you agree with — I’m not just picking on Harper here. In every major country, the political system has grown beyond the ability of a single man or woman to plausibly handle. Yet in every major country, not only are leaders still treated like benign elected dictators, but in many countries (including Canada and the US) the power at the centre is actually growing, not shrinking.
So, let’s return to the issue du jour. Explain to me again why it matters that the Cabinet is 39 members, instead of, say, 35 members. Or 30 members. Given that the Harper government doesn’t give ministers much power, and that if it did they would be overwhelmed by the scope of the work anyways, it really doesn’t matter that the Cabinet is unusually big. If anything, it should be bigger. Our democracy is supposed to be governed by (a) reasonable, well-informed leaders, who are (b) elected. You can get both of those at once, but not with a small Cabinet.
It’s the political equivalent of the well-known triangle in contracting: you can get something cheap and quick, cheap and well-done, or quick and well-done. But you will never get a result that is simultaneously well-constructed, quickly constructed, and cheaply constructed. You can try. And, much like our political system, sooner or later the result is going to be disastrous. We have impending disasters now, like the future of healthcare and the problem of climate change, which our political parties already appear incapable of addressing effectively. It would be worth asking how the system would cope if there was a real crisis, like a world war. They couldn’t handle it. They’re too busy preparing sound-bytes.Tweet