Martin's Bloated Cabinet

JEAN CHRÉTIEN once joked that he'd like to be a back-bencher under Paul MARTIN, because Martin was promising that back-benchers would get all the power - and because Martin had offered CABINET jobs to so many MPs, there'd be no other ordinary MPs for Chrétien to share the power with.

Martin's Bloated Cabinet

JEAN CHRÉTIEN once joked that he'd like to be a back-bencher under Paul MARTIN, because Martin was promising that back-benchers would get all the power - and because Martin had offered CABINET jobs to so many MPs, there'd be no other ordinary MPs for Chrétien to share the power with. If Chrétien remembered that line last week, he must have chuckled.

Martin managed to find a bigger cabinet in a smaller caucus than he did when he first landed the top job last December. Thirty-eight ministers were sworn in on July 20. Then news came that cabinet veteran Ethel Blondin-Andrew had survived a post-election recount in her riding and she was promptly added to the list, for a total of 39 ministers. Add 28 parliamentary secretaries and the new caucus whip, Karen Redman, and more than half of the 135-member Liberal caucus are ministers, ministers' helpers or parliamentary officers.

If you're a Liberal MP and you didn't get into a cabinet this big, it must be because Martin really didn't want you in. That compounded the sting for David Anderson and Denis Coderre, two veterans from the Chrétien years whom Martin kept in the first round but dumped this time round. Add the loss of Martin cabinet stars like Stan Keyes and Hélène Scherrer, who couldn't hold their ridings in the June 28 election, and there was plenty of room for the Prime Minister to build a new government for a radically different - and more dangerous - post-election environment.

He moved decisively, bringing in a handful of rookies, including two British Columbians to reflect his long-standing belief that Western Canadians should have more clout in government. Ujjal Dosanjh, the former NDP premier whose government got thumped by Gordon Campbell's Liberals in the last election, is the new health minister. David Emerson, a forest-industry executive, was handed the sprawling industry portfolio. And Toronto's Ken DRYDEN, the legendary Montreal Canadiens goalie, will exhaust pundits' supply of stickhandling metaphors in his role as the new minister of social development.

There's a significant promotion from lower ranks: John Godfrey, who served before the election as a parliamentary secretary advising Martin on the government's proposed "new deal" for Canada's cities, now has full cabinet rank to handle the same file. There's a striking return to the fold: Stéphane Dion, frozen out of Martin's first cabinet, is back as environment minister.

But if Martin's willingness to relent on Dion's banishment showed flexibility, his insistence on sticking with some controversial allies showed an unaccustomed stubborn streak. Some senior civil servants judged Reg Alcock a disaster as Martin's president of the treasury board, but Martin has kept the burly Winnipegger in that post all the same. And Jean Lapierre, the Bloc Québécois co-founder whom some Liberals hold responsible for the party's disastrous election performance in Quebec, was named transport minister, a job that gives him considerable clout not only in Quebec but across Canada.

A few observers believed Martin was tilting his new government to the left, whether in an attempt to woo the NDP and Bloc Québécois or to establish starker divisions between the Liberals and the Conservatives under Stephen Harper. Certainly there were signs to support that theory, including the replacement of the hawkish (and defeated) defence minister David Pratt with the more dovish Bill Graham.

Even more striking were the first comments Dosanjh made as health minister. When each was minister of health, Pierre Pettigrew and Anne McLellan sounded relatively unconcerned about private-sector delivery of health care, as long as providers billed provincial health-insurance corporations. But Dosanjh sounded a much tougher line: "What we need to do is stem the tide of privatization in Canada and expand public delivery of health care."

Still, this wouldn't be a Liberal government if it occupied only one side of the left-right spectrum. One of the key committees of the new cabinet appears to be the Expenditure Review Sub-committee, whose job is to look for money that can be taken from low-priority programs to fund Martin's pet projects. The sub-committee is stacked with fiscal hawks, including former Tory leadership contender Scott Brison and Emerson, the former business executive.

In an interview with Maclean's in his downtown Ottawa office, Emerson said he would regard proposals for new spending with a skeptical eye. "I would predict that there are going to be fiscal pressures coming," he said. "So we're going to have to look very hard at not just Industry Canada, but the whole array of programs that we have out there, as part of this expenditure-review process."

Beyond policy, the first priority of any minority government must be day-to-day survival. That's why it was so surprising that Martin turned to Hamilton's Tony Valeri, who does not speak French and has no previously recorded interest in parliamentary procedure, for the key role of government House leader. If Valeri miscounts on a key vote, this could end up a short-lived government indeed.

In the interim, Conservative Leader Stephen HARPER has to persuade more Canadians that he leads a government in waiting. He took the odd move of fielding a shadow cabinet as large as Martin's bloated executive. Harper even appointed one critic who is not an MP, defeated Quebec City candidate Josée Verner, in an attempt to balance his Western-heavy caucus. MPs may or may not have real clout once they leave Parliament Hill, but now at least a lot of them can take fancy titles back to their ridings.

Maclean's August 2, 2004