By Patrick Burchat
On the beautiful and crisp morning of Wednesday, November 4th, Prime Minister Justin P. J. Trudeau gave Canadians their new, 31 member, cabinet. The atmosphere of Rideau Hall was one of jubilant optimism and heightened anticipation as each new cabinet Minister swore their oaths. The cause for such sentiment represents the expectation that the new government will be one of “Sunny Ways”.
Although this sentiment is always the case when a new government comes to power – as it goes through its honeymoon phase – its anticipation of major change is neither naïve nor unfounded. In looking at this new cabinet alone, several major differences stand out in contrast to previous cabinets. The first of which is the contested 50/50 gender split between male and female ministers; making the 29th cabinet the closest to having equal gender representation in Canadian history (15 female and 16 male). There is also a lot of new blood – 18 newly elected MPs – among these 31 Ministers who are poised to bring new ways of thinking and fresh energy into Canada’s policy-making procedure. Lastly, the cabinet draws on a diverse array of backgrounds; from a regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations to a decorated veteran and an accomplished international lawyer.
Among these changes, there are also subtle continuities in the new Cabinet. As with the last three governments, most of the Ministers are MPs from Ontario or Quebec (with the exception of the 28th Cabinet under the previous government in which the majority of Ministers were from Ontario and Alberta). The practice of maintaining a contingent of experienced old-guard has been observed as well; Ministers for International Affairs, Public Safety, Treasury Board, Indigenous Affairs, Immigration, and Agriculture all have previous experience in former Liberal governments or Liberal leadership.
Despite the consistent similarities, it is the change that has rightly garnered the most attention. Simply put, this change has received a mixed reception. Criticism largely stems from the concern about what a gender quota will mean for the efficacy of a cabinet, but it has opened the door to a larger debate about the meritocratic value of demographic considerations in general. It is not this change that should be the focal point of discussion, but the course by which this change took place.
When asked about why it is important to have gender diversity in the Cabinet, Prime Minister Trudeau responded with a cutting “Because it’s 2015”. Some may feel this point reticent and juvenile while others argue its poignancy because meritocracy does not have to exclude diversity. Regardless of what side one takes in the debate, the fact of the matter is that nobody, beyond the PM and his immediate staff, knows exactly what method went into choosing the new cabinet. Canadians only see the finished product.
The more important question, then, is: will the new government present us with finished products, or with the process by which these products became finished? We witnessed, with the previous government, that governance isn’t always an organic process; it can lack transparency and be top-down in nature. The new government has promised one thing above all else: transparent change. November 4th was the day that it showed its ability to make change, and Canadians were given a new cabinet. How will it demonstrate its ability to make transparent change?
In a typical fashion, the cabinet-filling decisions were shrouded in secrecy and speculation. Prime Minister Trudeau discussed the government’s next major priorities with the media at the end of the ceremony. It is important to watch how the process of addressing these priorities is communicated to Canadians and how it involves them. The role of the cabinet is key to this process; will the PM tell the cabinet what to do, leaving his decision-making in secrecy, or will he heavily consider and weigh their diverse opinions openly?
Prime Minister Trudeau needs to, in the words of a political strategist, “let cabinet Ministers bloom and have a profile of their own”. A cabinet that can speak and think for itself is essential to ensuring that a government operates democratically and transparently. The new government has shown that it can change, and is capable of picking a team of strong individuals. It now needs to show that it is capable of allowing those individuals to think and act as such.
Patrick Burchat is currently an MA student at NPSIA and associate editor for North America where his writing has focused on topics ranging from rogue states to Latin American politics. In addition to iAffairs, he has served as a writer and editor at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, D.C.
Originally published by iAffairs Canada.