So far as I can tell, Canada has the largest cabinet in the developed world. At 39 ministers, the current retinue of prime ministerial chums, regional ward-heelers, box-tickers and hangers-on may be one short of the Canadian record (Brian Mulroney, 1987, if you’re scoring). But it dwarfs any of our nearest comparators.
Somehow the United States is able to govern its 330 million citizens with a cabinet of 25, counting the president and the vice-president: 15 executive departments plus eight other cabinet-level officers. The cabinet of the United Kingdom has lately swollen to 26, more than Australia (24) or New Zealand (20).
On the continent things are slimmer still. Italy may need 24 ministers – well, it is Italy, after all – but France does not seem noticeably undergoverned with a cabinet of 17, while Germany gets by on 15. The Scandinavian countries, never regarded as hotbeds of parsimony, range from a low of 19 (Finland) to a high of 22 (Sweden).
And so on. Pick an OECD country at random. Belgium? 15. Spain? 23. Japan? 21. Switzerland? Seven. There are cabinets the size of Canada’s, of course, but they are more typically found in the Third World: The cabinet appointed in 2005 by then-president Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka, for example, which included some 52 ministers – still a world record. But even here Canada stands out, with a cabinet larger than Tanzania’s (27), Rwanda’s (20) or Burundi’s (15).
Is Canada, with so few problems compared with other countries, really so hard to govern as all that? Thirty-nine full ministers, each of them drawing a full ministerial salary? Perhaps the largest cabinet of any central government in the democratic world, in the developed world’s most decentralized federation?
The historical record would suggest not. Sir John A. Macdonald governed with a cabinet of 13, himself included. Mackenzie King fought the Depression and the Second World War with as few as 16. Lester Pearson built the modern welfare state on a cabinet of 24 – which would be, even today, one of the larger cabinets internationally.
It’s only comparatively recently – since Trudeau the Elder, as it happens – that cabinet inflation has approached its current level: an era that, not coincidentally, is generally held to mark the decline of cabinet government in Canada, and of ministers as such more than spokespeople for the prime minister – a decline to which both of Canada’s major parties have made enthusiastic contributions.
A look at the current list of portfolios gives you some idea of the degree of superfluity involved. Most every country has a minister of finance, or something similar: the minister responsible for spending, taxes and, more generally, the economy. We have a minister of finance and a minister of revenue. And a minister of economic development.
But not only a minister of economic development. We also have a minister of rural economic development. Plus six other ministers of economic development, in charge of seven different regional economic development agencies. With that many ministers assigned to it, you’d think the economy would be pretty well developed by now.
We have a minister of labour and a minister of employment; a minister of defence and a minister of veterans’ affairs; a minister of Indigenous services and a minister of Crown-Indigenous relations; a minister of youth and a minister of children; a minister of health and a minister of mental health. A minister of sport and … well, a minister of sport, for goodness sake.
How did it come to this? It came to this because the job of cabinet in this country is no longer to govern the country – it is supposed to represent it. This was always true to some extent, of course: Cabinet posts have been doled out as prizes, not just for conspicuous loyalty to the prime minister, but to keep the peace among the various regions and language groups, since Confederation (and before).
But as the numbers of ways in which the offices of state must be divided has grown – race, gender and so on – so, in proportion, has the number and variety of the offices to be divided, a principle familiar to students of mathematics as the lowest common denominator.
And if prime ministers were not already disposed to attend to this arithmetic, an ever vigilant public would insist upon it: for in Canada, as in few other places on Earth, the principle by which we are governed is that All Must Have Prizes.
Canada, my old boss Bill Thorsell used to say, is “a nation of sumkeepers.” Each cabinet shuffle is greeted by a chorus of complaints from every part of the country that it has been “under-represented,” not just in this province or that, but sub-regions of provinces: why no ministers from the Waterloo area?
But they are encouraged, in their turn, by parties who, pitching for votes, soberly warn each province, region or municipality of the necessity of having “a seat at the table.” Cabinet seats are thus a kind of reward for good behaviour, not only by the recipient, but by the voters, to be bestowed on those who vote the right way and withheld from those who don’t.
And yet the more we have all played this sordid game, the more unsatisfying it has become. The greater the numbers crowded around the cabinet table, the less, inevitably, is the influence of each individual minister – or, indeed, of cabinet as a whole.
For decades, policy has increasingly been decided in the Prime Minister’s Office, not at the cabinet table. Ministers’ main remaining responsibility is to read from speeches prepared in the PMO, and respond to questions in Parliament with answers written in the PMO. Pathetically, ministers are not even allowed to appoint their own chiefs of staff any more.
A lot of people seem to find this suggestion deeply upsetting, though it is a commonplace among those who have studied the Canadian political system – and among senior civil servants, who have watched ministers’ powers decline over successive governments. Ministers themselves do not like to think they have reached this degraded state; neither do the people who write about them, or who make their living off them in other ways.
But ministers have real power! they reply. To which the answer is: compared to what? Compared with ordinary backbench MPs, yes, of course – a fire hydrant has more power than a backbencher. But compared to ministers in other countries? Compared to ministers in our past? Come on.
Representation is supposed to be Parliament’s job. Cabinet is supposed to govern. That we increasingly demand that cabinet represent us instead is because we know that Parliament does not (see: backbenchers, power of). But making one do the other’s job only ensures that neither purpose is well served.
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