The House

The science of cabinet making

How do you juggle a promise for gender parity, the need for regional representation, new blood vs experience? Seasoned strategists David McLaughlin and Scott Reid join us to discuss the challenges Justin Trudeau is facing as he tries to assemble his first cabinet.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, front centre, poses for a group photo with the federal cabinet announced during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Monday, July 15, 2013. Back Row, left to right: Minister of State (Small Business and Tourism, and Agriculture) Maxime Bernier, Minister of State and Chief Government Whip John Duncan, Minister of State (Sport) Bal Gosal, Minister of State (Seniors) Alice Wong, Minister of State (Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency) Rob Moore, Minister of State (Foreign Affairs and Consular) Lynne Yelich, Minister of State (Science and Technology, and Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario) Greg Rickford, Minister of State (Social Development) Candice Bergen, Minister of State (Democratic Reform) Pierre Poilievre, Minister of State (Multiculturalism) Tim Uppal, Minister of State (Finance) Kevin Sorenson, Minister of State (Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario) Gary Goodyear, Minister of National Revenue Kerry-Lynne Findlay. Middle Row, left to right: Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Gerry Ritz, Minister of Veterans Affairs Julian Fantino, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Gail Shea, Minister of International Development and Minister for La Francophonie Christian Paradis, Minister of Labour and Minister of Status of Women Kellie Leitch, Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird, Minister of Industry James Moore, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander, Minister of State (Western Economic Diversification) Michelle Rempel, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Bernard Valcourt, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages Shelly Glover, Leader of the Government in the House of Commons Peter Van Loan, Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver, Minister of International Trade Ed Fast, Minister of Transport Lisa Raitt. Front Row, left to right: Minister of Health Rona Ambrose, Minister of National Defence Rob Nicholson, Minister of Infrastructure, C (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau and his team have mostly retreated behind closed doors since the Oct. 19 election, hammering out the priorities of the new government, but also sifting through the resumes of potential cabinet ministers.

Trudeau has promised a much smaller cabinet than the one Stephen Harper had assembled in his last term in office. The Conservative cabinet was one of the largest in Canadian history with 40 members. Trudeau says his front bench will have fewer than 30 members.

He also promised to put together a cabinet that will have an equal numbers of men and women, a move that narrows the pool of potential ministers considerably.

Cabinet making is a tricky affair, even for leaders who haven't pledged gender parity. Prime minister-designate Trudeau will have to consider geography — ministers from urban and rural constituencies, and each of the provinces and territories — but also ethnic backgrounds.

Among the newly elected Liberal MPs are Harjit Sajjan, the first Sikh to command a regiment of the Canadian Army, Seamus O'Regan, a well-known CTV broadcaster and Jody Wilson-Raybould, a former regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations. (Canadian Press)

The Liberal Party recruited a number of indigenous and visible minorities candidates to run for them in the last election. A number of them were elected.

Who will be part of the Trudeau cabinet on Nov. 4? Hard to say. We've speculated on this site elsewhere.

We brought in two seasoned experts to help us understand the 'science' of cabinet making: Scott Reid, former chief of staff to prime minister Paul Martin, and David McLaughlin, the former chief of staff Brian Mulroney. 

Chris Hall: CBC News report this week that Justin Trudeau wants to recall Parliament before the Christmas break, what do you guys make of that? 

Scott Reid: I think it's a direct consequence of his campaign promises. He said he wanted to move the middle class tax bracket, if he's going to do that the best time to do that is January 1 and that is coming upon us pretty quickly. I think it's logical that they'd bring the House back but that might seem like — wow fast — but if you want to get that tax cut into the pockets of Canadians you're going to have to do that now.

David McLaughlin: There's the practical issue of when tax relief comes into effect — it's January 1 and July 1 — those are the two periods, and Scott is right if you want to pass it and get it going you've got to get the bill through parliament.

The other reason for bring Parliament back early: It's momentum, it's keep it going, build on the momentum and set the political tone for what you want to do and start to make some progress on some files. It's a big platform, lots of issues, lots of promises, and it's time to start ticking them off.

CH: Let me play devil's advocate, I think some of those promises, the missing and murdered indigenous women inquiry, some of these things can be done without Parliament. To me, Scott, the risk is that you have a relatively new ministers — some of them will be rookies with relatively new staff — is there a downside that you'd look at? 

SR: I think that downside is very limited. I hear the concerns you're raising but if I'm a looking at it through their eyes, I'm saying this is an opportunity to build ourselves a national platform. They're still in the halo of this victory and now they can move on their priorities.

I think the risks are very low and you can manage those concerns by ensuring that you have a tight, clear and focused agenda and everyone knows where the line is, how to hold on to it and avoid drifting.

CH: There are other things, particularly on Justin Trudeau's plate, including three international meetings. How do you manage those?

DM: First thing he has to get a handle on his role as prime minister in the international sphere. These events are very good briefing opportunities to meet people, start the bilateral relationships — meet face to face — start to measure up your colleagues internationally.

I don't think we should expect great new things out of these events, I think he should take his time and establish his footing.

Except the Paris climate change talks. This one is looming large for a number of reasons: he has made it a major milestone in his plan, a process to actually come up with a new climate change plan for Canada, and given the politics, and the kinds of toxic debate that we've had in this country on this issue showing a new face and a new way of doing things is important.

He's going to bring the premiers, so there's a big intergovernmental dimension, but he's going to have to move on the substance of it, too, otherwise he's going to be accepting Mr. Harper's plan for 2030 targets that have been put out there. That's very much a big one, a lot of people will be looking for a lot out of Mr. Trudeau at that event. 

CH:  As I said earlier: transition talks have been going on all week, there's also a cabinet to select before he announces it on Wednesday. The promise of 50/50 gender parity, does he have to meet that? 

SR: I think he does. I don't think you make a commitment like that and then say 'well, when we got down to it, it turned out to be hard to do.'

He's actually got a surplus of talent in his caucus. One of the quiet successes throughout the last number of months is that they've been successful in recruiting strong candidates, he's got a mix of veterans, he's got newcomers, that's going to be the tricky challenge.

I don't think it's going to be finding the gender split, and doing the 50/50, that'll be difficult. I think the challenge is going to be how to do you make certain everyone who is talented and deserving, feels like they came out of this, if not with a cabinet post, then with something good to chew on. 

DM: It is an important commitment, it's a historic commitment, and it's one he cannot not meet.

In doing so, he gives himself a cudgel to push back on other new members of the caucus, or old members of the previous caucus, to say 'Look I'm sorry there's no spot for you,' we ran on this and this is what we have to do, this is the new face of Liberalism in Canada.

It's one thing to have an image, it's another thing to have competence. He's got to match the image that he wants to send that reflects his caucus, his party, but also Canada, as he wants to represent it. But also has to have competence and the skills to get things done.

Job no. 1 for me: do the gender equality, the parity issue, but you've got to match your best performers to your most important files.

CH: OK, what names might you look to for minister of finance?

SR: It's a mugs game when it comes to guessing the composition of the cabinet.

On Sunday you make a decision at 2 o'clock, and it change everything by 5 o'clock. We might as well be guys sitting at the bar shooting our mouths off.

But he's got a handful of people who have clear experience: you've got a former finance minister in Ralph Goodale, you've got Scott Brison, John McCallum again — well schooled, well experienced — you've got a newcomer like Bill Morneau, and a relative, newcomer in Chrystia Freeland.

And if you want to think about gender parity, there's an opportunity to put a strong woman in a strong post. I think he's got a lot of options available to him.

The cabinet is also about signaling the key theme that we had with the campaign: change.

In this case it translates into generational change. I'll be watching not just to see 50/50 split on gender, I'll be watching to see how much is balanced between newcomers and rookies and how much is balanced between those who have a little grey around the temples versus those who are like Mr. Trudeau — people in their 40s.

DM: I would concur with all of that. And at this point: I'm looking for clues on where he's going to go on some bigger, deeper files.

Take climate change, take democratic reform, potentially pension reform, the department of industry. Is he going to do something in terms of changing the sectorial, industrial sector policies? 

For me, putting some key people in there, people that he has confidence in, or those who could grow on the job, will signal whether he's serious about real change in government departments.