Rumours have it that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is planning a cabinet shuffle before MPs return to work in September. While merit and competency plays a large role in deciding the make-up of a cabinet, gender, age, and regional representation are factors that are also taken into consideration.
With little representation in Quebec and a disproportionate number of MPs from Ontario and Western Canada, how does the Conservative cabinet’s regional distribution stack-up against others in Canadian history?
In this analysis, the size and regional representation of cabinet has been captured as of July 1 of each year. The definition of who is in the cabinet includes those of the wider ministry, while the "modern era" starts with John Diefenbaker’s ministry in 1957.
Now making up only 10 per cent of Stephen Harper’s cabinet, British Columbia is under-represented compared to its population. Its proportion is now lower than it was at a time under Jean Chrétien. However, at 18 per cent in 2008 the B.C. representation in cabinet was the highest it had ever been since 1957, when it also made up 18 per cent of Mr. Diefenbaker’s cabinet.
British Columbia has had a representative on cabinet on every Dominion/Canada Day since 1902, and has generally been well-represented at cabinet in the modern era. Its clout has steadily increased since the early 1980s, when it was at its lowest under Pierre Trudeau in 1980 and 1981, as well as in 1984 during the short-lived tenure of John Turner. In those years, only three per cent of cabinet was from B.C.
Alberta is over-represented at the cabinet table and has been ever since Mr. Harper became prime minister. At 15 per cent, it takes up more space in cabinet than during any other ministry, and peaked at 19 per cent in 2007, its highest point in Canadian history. Only under Joe Clark in 1979 did Alberta’s representation at cabinet approach its current clout.
But while Alberta has punched above its weight under Mr. Harper, it has not had a representative at cabinet as recently as the 1980s, and was unrepresented for much of the late 1960s and early 1970s under Mr. Trudeau and Lester Pearson. With the province slated to receive six more seats by 2015, and with the Conservatives likely to win all but one or two of the seats in Alberta, its clout is unlikely to diminish if the Tories are re-elected.
Prairies and the North
Despite also laying claim to most of the seats in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the Tories have not awarded the Prairies an unusually high share of cabinet seats under Mr. Harper’s watch. At its current weight of 13 per cent, that is equal to the weight of Prairie representation during part of Mr. Chrétien’s tenure. In fact, the Prairies’ cabinet representation in 2007 and 2008 was the lowest since the Trudeau years.
Generally, however, the Prairies have been over-represented at cabinet. In the modern era, they had the most weight under Mr. Diefenbaker (who hailed from Saskatchewan) but have been steady since the mid-1980s. They took up the greatest share of cabinet seats in 1917 under Robert Borden, when 24 per cent of cabinet ministers were from the Prairies. Though the last time they were not at cabinet on Dominion/Canada Day was 1911, their lowest since then was under Mr. Turner in 1984 when they had three per cent of cabinet seats.
Canada’s most populous province has generally been given its fair share of cabinet seats throughout the country’s history, and that has continued under Mr. Harper. At 38 per cent, the province’s weight in cabinet is roughly equal to its proportion of the Canadian population. Though that is still lower than during most of the Chrétien years, Mr. Harper has more Ontarians in his cabinet than Brian Mulroney ever did.
Since 1867, Conservative governments have averaged a slightly higher proportion of Ontario cabinet ministers than the Liberals, but in the modern era the province has been better represented under Liberal Prime Ministers. Its highest share of seats came in 2003, when 48 per cent of Mr. Chrétien’s cabinet hailed from Ontario. Its lowest share, at 14 per cent, came under Mackenzie King in 1940, while in the modern era Mr. Diefenbaker’s cabinet in 1960, at 26 per cent, had the lowest proportion of Ontarians.
At 10 per cent, the share of seats reserved for Quebecers in Mr. Harper’s cabinet is the lowest in Canadian history. The only time it has been this low was when it sunk to 11 per cent under Mr. King in 1942 – shortly after the plebiscite on conscription during the Second World War. Quebec’s cabinet representation did reach 19 per cent in 2007, though that share still under-represents the province.
Quebec’s weight at cabinet nose-dived in the aftermath of the Meech Lake Accord, when the Bloc Québécois started winning most of the province’s seats. Prior to this, Quebec enjoyed strong representation at cabinet, particularly under Liberal governments. This weight hit its zenith in 1968, when 44 per cent of the seats were occupied by Quebecers.
The four Atlantic provinces have usually been over-represented at cabinet, and its weight has budged little whether the prime minister has been Liberal or Tory. The region’s weight is currently 13 per cent of cabinet, higher than the nine per cent it had in 2007 and 2008, its lowest clout during Mr. Harper’s ministry. But between nine and 13 per cent has generally been the norm since the 1960s.
Atlantic Canada had its highest representation in the 1870s, when it made up 38 per cent of Alexander Mackenzie’s cabinet. At that time, the region had more weight than either Ontario or Quebec. In the modern era, its weight was at its highest in 1957 when it had 24 per cent of cabinet seats. Its lowest came in 1945, when Mr. King awarded only five per cent of his cabinet portfolios to Atlantic Canadians, and it was as low as seven per cent between 1969 and 1972 under Mr. Trudeau.
Though it is only one of several concerns, the prime minister would need to do significant shuffling in order to get proper representation at the cabinet table. Seats would need to be taken away from Alberta, the Prairies, and Atlantic Canada and handed over to British Columbia and Quebec. Though Mr. Harper has many MPs from which to choose on the West Coast, he does not have enough in Quebec to get the right balance without reducing the size of his cabinet by half. He does have room to prune, however, as at 39 members his cabinet is tied for the largest in Canadian history.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com.