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What you need to know: The art of cabinet making

Richard Mahoney, Managing Director

Let’s start with a really basic question: how do you describe the role of cabinet in governing the country? In addition, how has this changed with the centralization we’ve seen in Prime Minister’s Offices over the years?

That’s such a good question and one on which some excellent books have been published.  But in (very) short form, the federal Cabinet governs the country and the Prime Minister selects and runs the Cabinet.  In theory, Parliament oversees that, but, in practice, that oversight is quite limited.   

There has been an uninterrupted growth in the effective power of the Prime Minister over the last fifty years or so. The result is that while cabinet ministers “run” and are accountable for the operation of their individual ministries, their authority to do so is often guided by the “centre” of government: the Prime Minister, his office, and the Privy Council Office.  

Many people in and around Canadian politics talk about cabinet making as more of an art than a science. Briefly, what are the main considerations for a Prime Minister in making a cabinet?

Some of this is transparent to the public, but much is not.  Making a cabinet is a kind of balancing act. It’s also a very political exercise. 

The PM has to choose his Ministers from the Parliament Canadians have chosen, so that narrows down the list quite a bit! And while merit is important, merit doesn’t mean expertise in the subject matter. Instead, it means the ability to understand the issues involved, the ability to lead a ministry and an office, and the ability to communicate the priorities of the government in that area, both internally and externally. 

A Cabinet should represent and reflect the country, and this Prime Minister has made it clear that there needs to be a gender balance in Cabinet.  And that is not the only important demographic factor. The best Cabinet will look like a reflection of the country it governs. Regional considerations are important- and there is an expectation that there will be a balance there, too.  

Finally yet importantly, political parties are, in part, coalitions of various interests, and so you also want a balance of those interests in cabinet. That is a very political exercise.  

Let’s talk about the mix of professional abilities and expertise a PM needs at the cabinet table. How much does it matter that the Health Minister has a medical background, or the Defence Minister has worked in the military, for example?

This may surprise some, but, typically, the answer is not that much. It’s more important to have the ability to understand command and communicate the issues in that ministry.  Most Health Ministers haven’t been nurses or doctors, for example.  The most effective ministers in the Defence portfolio have typically not had a military background. 

There are some cases where it may be more important than others. There is a strong expectation that the Minister of Justice and Attorney General should be a lawyer, and that the Finance Minister should have expertise on the economy. The former after all is the “chief litigator” for the crown; the latter has to command the confidence of Canadians and be competent in leading and managing our budget and finances. (Still, it doesn’t mean he or she needs to be an economist, or someone with a financial background.)

It’s also possible that a background in a particular subject creates complications for a minister- but that’s a topic for another day!

Over the years, we’ve seen an increasing focus on diversity and representation for women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ people in cabinet. What’s the importance of having these voices at the cabinet table, and why has it taken so long for our cabinets to be more representative?

It’s critically important and becoming more so every day.  As society comes to terms with these issues as a whole, we expect our governments to reflect the realities of the country. Given all the other factors that need to be considered — the limited pool of folks you can choose from, the regional and political concerns – it is difficult to get the balance right.   

It’s fair to say the current government and Prime Minister have put a huge emphasis on this, but finding the right people to do the job taking into account all the issues we have discussed, and also achieving a balance on diversity and representation at the same time, is hard work. I think it has taken so long for a bunch of reasons, but it does reflect the struggles we have had as a society to come to terms with these issues in every aspect of life and all of our institutions.  

We know Canada is a nation of regions. What are the key considerations a PM must take into account when considering how different provinces and regions are included at the cabinet table?

As discussed above, this is an inherently political exercise. All regions expect to have representation in Cabinet. The theory is that adds perspective and representation from that province/region to the Cabinet decision making process and that those voices will bring a kind of diversity to governance. 

The nation’s largest cities also expect to have ministers at the Cabinet table. Quebec is about 24 per cent of the country’s population and expects that it will have at least a similar proportion of the Cabinet chosen from its ranks.  Provinces and regions are also part of the governing party’s parliamentary coalition, and so can expect similarly to have strong representation in the Cabinet. Conversely, when a particular party forms a government without representation from a particular province or region, that province or region doesn’t have a minister in Cabinet, and this often creates legitimacy issues in that province or region.

Are there specific considerations a PM with a minority government needs to take into account when making a cabinet?

Yes. At a minimum, ministers need to be able to manage Parliament and get bills passed. That’s a skill that is less important in a majority.  The government wants to get its legislation through Parliament and needs to maintain the confidence of Parliament to stay in office, so the ability to manage issues and relationships across the aisle, and know and understand the parliamentary opposition’s points of pain and joy becomes critical. Cabinet ministers should always be skilled at the art of politics, but a minority makes it mandatory.

What advice are you giving to clients watching the coming cabinet announcement from Prime Minister Trudeau?

I couldn’t possibly tell you!  Unless you were a client, of course…..🙂



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