Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared on Monday that the reshaping of the federal cabinet has initiated a “generational change.” That may well turn out to be true, but the apparent premise behind the way in which the shuffle was done is that rejuvenation of the government can only be achieved at the price of having too large a cabinet, which is now back up to the historical peak of 39 members – considerably larger than most elementary-school classes. It is not a realistic size for a genuinely deliberative, decision-making body.
The shuffle did indeed include a number of promising and desirable promotions, but one-third of the new cabinet are ministers of state, most of whom are not in charge of a department. The upshot will be a heavy reliance on the major cabinet committees, and a continuing concentration of power in the hands of Mr. Harper and his upper staff.
Leona Aglukkaq’s promotion is one of the welcome changes. She proved to be an effective chair of the international Arctic Council this year, while she was still the minister of health. As a native of the Arctic and the MP for Nunavut, she is in an excellent position as Minister of the Environment to strike a balance between the protection of sensitive environments and economic development.
James Moore has been an effective minister in the Commons, but the Department of Industry will truly test his abilities. This government has not handled foreign-investment policy well; it remains murky. Investors, both foreign and domestic, have been cast into uncertainty. Major challenges are coming in the wireless and telecom sectors. Mr. Moore must find ways to prepare himself.
A new cabinet minister, Chris Alexander was rightly promoted. As Minister of Immigration, he will be able to apply his deep knowledge of international affairs in a field that raises a wide range of fraught issues.
The move of his predecessor, Jason Kenney, to Employment and Social Development, might not look like a promotion, but the choice of such a senior, capable and articulate minister is an encouraging signal that the federal government will work seriously to co-operate with the provinces on job training, as the 2013 budget promised.
Mr. Harper presented the shuffle as a combination of “steady hands” with “new opportunities” for younger MPs, but 39 ministers are too many. Most “ministers of state” could gain their experience as parliamentary secretaries. Title inflation is a real problem. A cabinet should not be a town hall. It should govern.