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david mclaughlin

David McLaughlin is a former Conservative party chief of staff at the federal and provincial levels.


Dear prime-minister-designate Trudeau:

Congratulations on your historic win! Now, on to government! But first, you need to form a cabinet.

You, like me, may be wondering who the heck are all these new people just elected. Any prime minister would rightly note that this is a sunny problem to have; after all, it means you are in government. And, boy, are you in government! With a strong, stable majority government, or so the saying goes.

But please remember, majority governments may provide an embarrassment of riches in forming a cabinet, but a richness of embarrassment can lie just underneath if not done right.

You have two unique challenges in selecting a cabinet, one of your own making and one of the electorate's.

The first challenge is that you made gender parity at the cabinet table a primordial condition. For the first time, you said, an equal number of men and women are to sit in the federal cabinet. Never mind that it has been done in Quebec and Alberta already, this is a bold and historic statement at the federal level. You need to stick to this promise; if broken, it will haunt you until the next election.

In doing so, you need to pick from the electorate's choosing of Liberal members of Parliament. This is your second challenge. Along with the usually fickle and arbitrary nature of voters' choices, you must select from a talent pool of almost 150 first-time MPs. Whatever experience they had in private or community life, few are arriving in the House of Commons with the executive or political proficiency valuable for ministerial success.

Optics of gender parity is one thing; substance of ministerial appointments is quite another. Marrying the two is what cabinet-making is all about. So, here's a handy guide to follow:

First, match your best performers with your most important files. Voters will forgive second-rate ministers but will always remember second-rate results. Not every platform commitment matters equally. The most important ones are typically the most difficult ones. Handing them to ministers who can deliver will never be regretted. Besides, it is never too early to think about legacy. So, think.

Second, attach an agenda to your cabinet. Don't wait for the Throne Speech to tell Canadians what you plan to do. Transition is not simply about taking office; it is about exercising office in the critical early days while securing momentum to take on issues – big and small – as you begin governing. Use the swearing-in ceremony to publicly establish your first priorities and begin delivery of them.

Third, adapt the machinery of government to your agenda, not the other way around. Four years is an awfully short time, in reality, to make progress on thorny issues such as climate change or democratic reform. Contrary to what you might think, policy ideas are probably not in short supply inside the bureaucracy. But the system's ability to deliver the results you will want is. How to get things done is what bedevils officials now, not what needs to be done.

Fourth, remember where you came from. Under Stephen Harper, Alberta and Ontario had pride of place in the cabinet, holding most of the senior portfolios commensurate with most of the Conservative seats. This time, having given every seat to your party, Atlantic Canada will be vying for recognition along with Ontario, Toronto, and (once again) Quebec. As for everywhere else, you won seats in every province so the perennial regional representation matter for cabinet doesn't matter that much.

Fifth, re-establish cabinet government and make Parliament relevant again. Frankly, none of the above matters much if, as prime minister, you do not allow your cabinet to exercise influence and authority. It is what responsible government and parliamentary accountability is meant to be. You do not need a communications edict to style yourselves the "Trudeau government." It already is. Step back so you can step in when and where it counts.

Finally, dear PM-D, here's a novel idea for communicating about your new cabinet. Instead of announcing it the old way at Rideau Hall or on Twitter, why not just put their names and portfolios on a decks of cards?

When that obligatory cabinet reshuffling of the deck comes along mid-term, those cards might come in handy.

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