It's not his job to explain the persistently big size of the Harper cabinet in an era of belt-tightening, but newly-minted minister Ted Menzies bravely tried at his first press conference Wednesday.
With a micro-shuffle Tuesday, Stephen Harper expanded his cabinet by two ministers, bringing it to a total of 38 – the size it was in 2010 before both Helena Guergis and Jim Prentice left the fold.
This would seem to run contrary to the restraint theme being preached by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty as he prepares a bare-bones 2011 budget that will rein in spending to fight the deficit and ask Canadians, particularly public servants, to make sacrifices.
It was, after all, Mr. Harper himself who made the size of cabinet an issue when he took office.
Back in 2006 he boasted his first cabinet was only 26 ministers, a deliberate attempt to contrast himself with former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, whose cabinet was 38 MPs strong.
"My smaller cabinet and more streamlined cabinet structure are designed for work – not for show," Mr. Harper said in 2006 as he unveiled his first team of ministers. The size of the cabinet has expanded bit by bit since then.
Mr. Menzies, a well-regarded fiscal conservative from southern Alberta, spoke to reporters in Ottawa for the first time Wednesday as minister of state for finance – a job that makes him a backup minister to Mr. Flaherty.
He was there to announce more money for student summer jobs programs but responded to a reporter's question about the inherent contradiction of a large cabinet during an era of belt tightening.
"We're in some very unique and challenging times right now and the more shoulders behind the wheel that we have, I think will help us," Mr. Menzies said.
He noted that previous cabinets have been larger (Brian Mulroney's reached 40 ministers) but said that the number of ministers is not that important a detail.
"Whether the numbers at the cabinet table – we've seen more historically, in the past – I don't think that's as big an issue as the quality that we have there, the strength [of the members] in this cabinet that are working in unison," he said.
Mr. Menzies later changed tack, speaking only about his appointment and saying Mr. Flaherty needed a back-up minister because he's been so heavily preoccupied with responsibilities related to the international economic recovery.
"Minister Flaherty has done yeoman's work for this country and he's done it alone in the Finance Department. He's been the chair of the G7 finance ministers; he's the dean – the longest-sitting finance minister in the G7 and he's done a lot of work outside this country that most Canadians don't know about."
"He's chaired many of these G7 conference calls, working to save other countries' financial positions and he's frankly been overworked. So I think the Prime Minister recognized that and asked me to help take on some of that role."
Pressed on why the Tories are maintaining such a big cabinet when Mr. Harper came into office singing the virtues of leaner cabinets, Mr. Menzies said something that he probably should have said from the start.
"You should probably take that up with the Prime Minister. It was his decision to bring on people that he needed to fill those roles."
Each MP receives a salary of about $157,700 per year. Ministers receive an extra stipend of roughly $75,500 above that, plus a car allowance worth more than $2,000. Ministers of State -- basically junior ministers -- receive only about $56,600 in extra salary on top of their MPs' pay. They also receive a car allowance.