Prime Minister Harper unveiled his brand new post-election cabinet yesterday, and, well, it’s a lot like the old one. The vast majority of his senior ministers kept their jobs — excluding, of course, those who failed to be re-elected to parliament. A couple of new faces were promoted into the empty spots, and some slotted into new spots entirely, but really, the most noteworthy thing about the new cabinet is its size. Angering a lot of small-government conservatives, Harper appointed the-tied-for-largest cabinet in Canadian history, with a total of 39 ministers. As pundit Andrew Coyne noted, this means Canada now has, by a considerable margin, the single largest cabinet in the democratic world.
You might notice that I don’t do a lot of cartoons about Harper’s cabinet. In fact, I can only think of a handful of cartoons in which I’ve even drawn a cabinet minister, let alone done a whole toon based around something they’ve said or done. This isn’t due to any oversight on my part: the prime minister’s cabinet has simply become extremely weak, if not borderline irrelevant in modern Canadian government. A Wikileaks profile of Stephen Harper noted that “few, if any ministers appear to be genuine confidantes” of the prime minister, adding that the PM “seems to operate largely as his own strategist, tactician, and advisor,” even eschewing a firm permanent staff in his own executive office. Though Harper gets a lot of bad press for running a one-man-show, this leadership style isn’t terribly novel: the Canadian constitution grants enormous power to the prime minister — who, lest we forget, is leader of both the executive and legislative branches of government — so most recent prime ministers have governed in a similar fashion. Another fine Canadian pundit, Jeffery Simpson, once wrote an entire book about the Chretien government under the unsubtle title “The Friendly Dictatorship,” for instance. Under Chretien, wrote Simpson, the cabinet was little more than a “sounding board” of nodding heads for those rare occasions when the PM felt unguarded enough to discuss an idea in public.
Lacking any real power over the PM’s agenda (the same Wikileaks profile notes how Harper’s ministers are frequently “surprised” when the PM announces some bold new initiative, or only learn about policy changes by reading the newspaper), cabinet has descended into something of a show horse; a way for the prime minister to carefully appease and patronize as many of this country’s vast and disparate “communities” as possible. This is the only real reason the body’s as big as it is: more ministers equals more opportunities for tokenism.
The Harper cabinet is thus a delicate balancing act of ministers from all provinces, regions, genders, religions, and races. There’s a Sikh minister, two aboriginal ministers, a couple of Asian ministers, and a Jewish minister. There’s even a minister in a wheelchair. Noting such trivia is largely what “reporting on cabinet” has been reduced to. And after the tallies have been published, the whole gang is promptly forgotten.
Be all this as it may, from my own idiosyncratic vantage point, I did nevertheless find two of Harper’s “tokens” quite interesting.
John Baird, who has a reputation as one of the few men Harper actually trusts — and also as one of the most loudly partisan Conservatives in Ottawa — has been bumped up to foreign minister. Though he is not officially out of the closet, there is a vast, vast amount of circumstantial and anecdotal evidence to suggest the never-married Baird is gay. It’s one of the most open secrets among people who follow politics in this country, though the Canadian press, presumably wary of Canada’s very strict libel laws, has awkwardly done its best to keep the rumors out of the headlines. In any case, it’s impossible that Harper has no knowledge of Baird’s sexuality, and must therefore not find it particularly threatening or off-putting. For a government long-rumored to have an anti-gay “hidden agenda,” this is quite relevant indeed.
Then there’s James Moore, who was reappointed as minister of heritage. At one time I knew Moore fairly well, and even volunteered on a couple of his election campaigns, since his riding is in my area. Like me, Moore was a republican, and critical of the monarchy’s role in the Canadian constitution — which, despite much official mythology, is not actually that unusual of a position for a Conservative politician. What is unusual, however, is for a prime minister to stick a republican in the one cabinet position whose mandate includes the management of royalty-government relations and promotion of the Crown.
Like Baird, Moore isn’t publicly “out” as a republican, though again, like Baird, in my experience everyone close to him, including cabinet colleagues, seems to be aware of the fact. And again, it seems like the sort of thing Harper would have a litmus test for if he actually cared about, and would only turn a blind eye if he didn’t mind one way or another.
Since Harper has only become more erratic and mysterious the longer he remains in power, trying discerning his true intentions on any number of issues is often little more than an idle game of reading the tea leaves. With this is in mind, we can clearly draw at least three tentative conclusions about the man from his cabinet picks, all defined in the negative: he is not serious about scaling down the size of government, he is not serious about ratcheting-back gay rights, and he is not serious about the Queen.
Of course, the weird and incongruous nature of these three “nots” may prove to be the most revealing symbol of all.