As Prime Minister Stephen Harper contemplates a major cabinet shuffle, he is no doubt reminding himself of what our first prime minister is said to have declaimed: “Give me better timber and I will make you a better cabinet.” The same dilemma has bedevilled all other prime ministers since. In Sir John A.’s tradition, they are all “cabinet makers.”
With Canada being geographically large, regionally motivated and linguistically constituted, Mr. Harper’s choices and conversations will be governed more by constraints than by opportunities. For his MPs, it will be a lottery of being from the right place at the right time.
Start with the timber. Mr. Harper needs to see the forest, not just the trees. He is blessed with young saplings – to carry the metaphor – but some old oaks, too. Those oaks are well-rooted and impervious to the political elements, the old-growth forest of his first governments. The saplings may bend with the wind and struggle for the light, but they offer regeneration. He needs to mix the two, keeping an eye on the forest floor past while planting and pruning for the future of his government and his party.
The iron calculus of cabinet making remains constant: Size matters. The more seats you have, the more ministers you get. That’s why New Brunswick, with eight Conservative seats, will get two ministers and Nova Scotia, with four, will only get one. And Alberta will get four.
And, since all politics is local, where ministers hail from counts. All regions and provinces get a cabinet seat. The Conservatives have seats almost everywhere, but those seats are unevenly located. Mr. Harper will need to balance representation with location, ensuring no province or region is slighted.
The subtext in every province, however, is region – including keeping an eye on urban-rural balance. Not every minister can come from Calgary or southern Alberta. Inevitably, someone deserving will be left out in order to put in someone else, from somewhere else.
Matching location with portfolio is usually obvious, but it can be tricky. The fisheries minister will never come from Saskatchewan but the agriculture minister can come from Prince Edward Island. Every region needs at least one top-tier portfolio tied to their interests to show it still has clout in Ottawa. In the “salad days of pork and patronage,” having a minister whose portfolio mattered locally or regionally (think of Trudeau-era fisheries minister Roméo LeBlanc, from New Brunswick) meant their political influence went well beyond the nameplate on the departmental door.
Next comes language. Not just bilingual ministers, but francophone ministers and Quebec ministers. Moreover, they have a call on at least a number of the top-tier portfolios. This is messier for Mr. Harper, since he has just five seats in Quebec. Their odds of making it into cabinet will always be high. But the risks of mismatching the individual with the portfolio is equally high, as seen with Maxime Bernier’s flameout at Foreign Affairs.
Performance counts, too. While not a meritocracy, good performers typically wind up with the most important portfolios in a given cabinet. Think Jim Flaherty at Finance or Jason Kenney at Immigration. But portfolio importance rises and falls with political and economic tides. Arguably, the opportune time to shuffle your finance minister is when the economy is, as we are told, doing well. But that opens the door to a domino effect, as replacing one minister inevitably starts knocking over others. Before too long, you’ve remade your government and, to the opposition’s delight, essentially voted non-confidence in yourself and your own policies. But with time ticking on this government’s mandate, it’s crucial to match high performers to politically important portfolios (and, conversely, to shuffle out underperformers).
Then, there’s gender. the Prime Minister has fewer choices than desired but more than in the past, giving him room. Finding matches for senior portfolios to avoid tokenism is the real challenge.
There are many audiences for a cabinet shuffle, voters and the media being obvious ones. But caucus – the ones left out – may matter most now, especially in the final shuffle prior to an election. Shuffling when you’re down in the polls and caucus is restive is a task unto itself. Mr. Harper will have to convince more than a few that for the good of the party, the government and the country, their talents were not needed.
Tough, yes, but every prime minister has to know when to lay down his friends for his life.
David McLaughlin has been chief of staff to prime minister Brian Mulroney, New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.