“Give me better wood and I will make you a better cabinet”

Lament by Canada’s first Prime Minister about the trials of building a political cabinet based on the whims of the electorate.

Over the course of his long and, at times, quite controversial tenure as Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald was part of, and built, countless political cabinets. And in being a leader in a parliamentary democracy (which at the time, of course, meant only men of a certain age, race and property class could vote), Macdonald chose his cabinet from Members of Parliament elected locally. Hence the lament about how the quality of his cabinet was a function of its materials.

All subsequent Prime Ministers have faced similar situations. From Macdonald to Justin Trudeau, federal leaders sift through a variety of considerations (e.g., gender, geography, language, culture and demographics) to construct cabinets shaped from the MPs of the party in power. Appointing non-elected Senators to a cabinet, which happens occasionally, is a technique used by the Prime Minister when a particular region is un-represented by the party in power.

Among other things, leaders want their cabinets – which are a confluence of policy and politics – to help steward both the country and the governing party through good times and bad. In 2015, brand-new PM Justin Trudeau said he built gender parity into his cabinet “because it’s 2015”.

Choosing a cabinet is one of the hardest – and, when announced – most public tasks that Prime Ministers undertake during their first 100 days in office. Sometimes it works out quite well – the wood is solid. Other times not as much, and the rot starts to show through quickly. While the latter may expedite change more readily than the former, shuffling members of the cabinet is a regular occurrence throughout a government’s time in office. After all, an effective shuffle can re-energize the cabinet’s ambitions, keep its members on their toes, and dangle promotion incentives to backbenchers.

Indeed, having the power to appoint and fire cabinet ministers allows Prime Ministers to maintain a keen eye on would-be rivals. The key question: keep those rivals (including a “leader-in-waiting”) under close scrutiny by putting them in the cabinet, or exclude rivals from the inner core and risk creating martyrs? As Jean Chretien used to warn members of his various cabinets, he always had a “Team B” waiting to jump into action.

As they say, good carpenters never blame their tools. Prime minister and their cabinets? Well, the blame game is very common. But better wood usually does lead to better cabinets. Usually.

Lumberjacks in British Columbia, circa 1895.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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