Story Tools: PRINT | Text Size: S M L XL | REPORT TYPO | SEND YOUR FEEDBACK
On Jan. 4, 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen leave a cabinet swearing-in ceremony as new members of his cabinet look on. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

In Depth

The 39th Parliament

A short history of the cabinet shuffle

Last Updated August 10, 2007

So, another federal cabinet shuffle is on the way, the second in less than a year. Is that some kind of record? Not even close.

Jean Chrétien, Brian Mulroney and Pierre Trudeau all went through the same experience, though in their cases mostly brought on by circumstances, like having two high-profile ministers resign within months of each other.

Trudeau even had a year — 1983 — with three sets of cabinet changes. But that was at the twilight of his regime, with old loyalists heading off to their rewards and was highly unusual, especially by his standards. He didn't much like moving ministers around; it required too much personal confrontation.

This one by Stephen Harper seems different from those other multi-shuffles, if only because it seems to have all of Conservative Ottawa primping as if for a big ball.

Not to diminish the first Harper shuffle on Jan. 4, 2007, but this one seems like the real deal. January's basically saw the demotion of two shaky ministers in high-profile portfolios and should probably be seen in a certain context: the Conservatives were enjoying a nice little bump in the polls at that juncture and were thinking about putting the best face forward for a spring election.

This one, 19 months after the Harper government was first sworn in, has a different subtext — it seems all about giving the government a new, possibly more urban, face and a new agenda to take into the fall session, and who knows how long after.

As such, it seems more akin to Mulroney's first big shuffle in 1986, two years into his first mandate. At that time, six ministers were dropped, eight new faces added and 12 portfolios changed hands. The big news, though, was that then deputy prime minister Erik Nielsen, the ultra-tight-lipped Mulroney loyalist, was replaced by the more affable Don Mazankowski, which gave the government a new demeanour.

Talent pool

Will Harper follow Mulroney (his sometime mentor) down this road? Maybe, but we probably shouldn't expect him to go as far.

For one thing, he doesn't have the same talent pool to draw from as Mulroney, who enjoyed a huge post-Trudeau, Conservative majority and could afford to wait a couple of years to see who in caucus was ready for the big table and who wasn't.

Harper also doesn't have a surplus of women or urban MPs to draw on in order to radically reshape his cabinet's image. Mulroney appointed 11 women overall to cabinet in his nine years in power (though no more than seven at any given time).

Harper has seven in his cabinet, including Senator Marjory LeBreton. And the speculation is that Harper will be dropping at least one woman minister, Saskatchewan's Carol Skelton, who has said she won't be running again. There is also speculation he will drop Vancouver's David Emerson, the former Liberal who seems unlikely to be able to retain his seat.

But the point of this week's exercise seems the same as Mulroney's in 1986: to reposition a government that has gone soft in the polls, and to use the change to launch a new agenda.

Election team

Often, when they shuffle their cabinets, prime ministers like to say that this is the team they will be taking into the next election. But election cabinets are seldom that obvious or guaranteed winners.

Trudeau's first real cabinet shuffle, in January 1972, was small but highly symbolic. He brought in the youthful John Turner, a former leadership challenger, to be his new finance minister, replacing the old guard Edgar Benson. The Liberals were reduced to a minority in the 1972 election but Turner would go on to be the virtual co-captain and face of their renewal two years later.

Chrétien's first big cabinet change, in 1996, three years after he came to power, was long overdue, according to most critics. It was notable for bringing in two then-unelected young Quebecers — Stéphane Dion, the current Liberal leader, and Pierre Pettigrew, a former aide to Quebec Liberal leader Claude Ryan.

At the time, Chrétien called it his election government, though the vote was more than a year away. But it should better be seen as his response to the razor-thin federalist victory in the 1995 Quebec referendum. So it was both a new-face cabinet and a patch-up-the-holes one.

Mulroney did go on to win the 1988 election but by then, of course, he had found his issue — free trade.

He also became quite a prolific shuffler: there were at least seven swearing-in ceremonies during his nine years in power. Key ministers like Newfoundland's John Crosbie and Ontario's Perrin Beatty occupied five separate portfolios each during that period. Average duration: 21 months per ministry.

Who cares?

Should anyone outside of official Ottawa and family members care about cabinet shuffles and swearing-in ceremonies? Well, yeah.

To a certain extent, while cabinet changes allow governments to try for a fresh start, they can also put off accountability as new ministers require time to become acquainted with their portfolios, and take over the answering for their once-beleaguered colleagues.

In theory, too much shuffling curtails strong ministers and hands more power to the bureaucracy, unless of course the senior bureaucracy is being shuffled around at the same time, which is also taking place these days in Harper's Ottawa.

That was the case in the Mulroney years. Academics would later argue that too much ministerial and deputy minister shuffling ended up confusing the system and giving too much authority to political operatives in the PMO and ministerial offices. (Though those same PMO smart guys really ran the show in the Trudeau years as well, when ministers largely stayed in place but were befuddled by convoluted flow charts and the cabinet committee system.)

Cabinet shuffles can open up the system, at least to momentary scrutiny of who's up and who's down. Though they often open it up literally as well.

Harper, like almost every prime minister before him, began with a relatively small cabinet, 27 ministers, when he first took power but saw that rise to 32 with the new junior ministers who were added in January. As he seeks to add the appropriate urban, gender and regional balance this time, he could be hard-pressed to keep it under that number.

Go to the Top

[an error occurred while processing this directive] [an error occurred while processing this directive]
Story Tools: PRINT | Text Size: S M L XL | REPORT TYPO | SEND YOUR FEEDBACK

World »

302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Canada »

302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Politics »

302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Health »

302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Arts & Entertainment»

302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Technology & Science »

302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Money »

302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Consumer Life »

302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Sports »

[an error occurred while processing this directive] 302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Diversions »

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
more »