Skip to main content
john ibbitson

Minister of International Cooperation is the place where political careers go to die. It has proven fatal to most of its incumbents. Julian Fantino should take note.

And so, perhaps, should Stephen Harper. Given the record of failure of almost every minister who has held the post, perhaps it is time to abolish the job entirely.

In his six months as the head of the Canadian International Development Agency, known as CIDA, Mr. Fantino has had his share of mishaps. The department's website posted two letters attacking the opposition parties, which is highly inappropriate.

Much more worrying, the Minister announced a suspension of aid to Haiti through the press, blindsiding the Haitian government and upsetting both the United States and the United Nations.

Given his unimpressive performance in his previous portfolio – as Associate Minister of National Defence his handling of the F-35 procurement file was less than stellar – Mr. Fantino might reasonably wonder whether he will be dropped from cabinet in the next shuffle.

If so, his fate will hardly be unique. Consider the record of his predecessors:

According to local lore, the portfolio was created in 1996 to give Pierre Pettigrew something to do, after Jean Chrétien recruited him and Stéphane Dion from Quebec in the wake of the 1995 referendum. Mr. Pettigrew was there for just over eight months, before moving onward and upward.

His successor, Don Boudria, also lasted just over eight months before being promoted. And then things started to go south.

Diana Marleau was appointed to the job in 1997, a clear demotion for the former minister of Health and of Public Works. Two years later she was dropped from cabinet.

Then came Maria Minna. She lasted less than three years before also being dropped from cabinet. Mr. Chrétien then chose Susan Whelan for the job. Paul Martin unchose her, returning Ms. Whelan the back bench in 2003.

The voters dispatched Mr. Martin's pick, Aileen Carroll, in the 2006 election that also dispatched Mr. Martin.

Mr. Harper's first pick, Josee Verner, spent only 18 months in the portfolio before being promoted to Canadian Heritage. Ms. Verner was defeated in the 2011 election, after which Mr. Harper sent her to her reward in the Senate.

His second pick was Bev Oda, who served for almost five tumultuous years – the maternal health initiative's proscription on funding for abortion; the Kairos memo; the stay at the Savoy and the $16 orange juice – which ended with her resignation from cabinet and her seat.

In one sense, Mr. Fantino can take solace from this sorry record. He is, after all, doing no worse than most. But four of his predecessors were dropped from cabinet or resigned. One was defeated in an election. The only ministers whose careers actually survived the portfolio left before it could do any lasting damage.

If past is precedent, Mr. Fantino will either be promoted or turfed in the next cabinet shuffle. The auspices are not encouraging.

Defenders of giving the head of CIDA cabinet rank make two arguments:

1) There should be a minister at the cabinet table advocating for foreign aid;

2) Giving CIDA its own minister ensures that the priorities of foreign aid are not held hostage to the priorities of Foreign Affairs.

But it does no good to have a foreign-aid minister if the minister is chronically weak. And the priorities of foreign aid end up aligning with the priorities of Foreign Affairs in any case. Think of Afghanistan and Haiti.

Unless Mr. Harper has a mind to install a powerful and competent minister in the portfolio, he would do well to consider folding it back into Foreign Affairs.

After all, aren't these Conservatives supposed to be in favour of smaller government?