Andrew Coyne: No obvious clunkers in cabinet, but why are committees dominated by men?

government is back,” declared, and let us earnestly hope he means it. Government by the smartest guy in the room wasn’t a terribly happy experience; perhaps a sense of his own limitations will leave Trudeau less prone to that temptation.

Still, with 31 seats around the table this is not the lean, focused ministry we were led to expect. Stephen Harper’s was smaller when he started; Jean Chretien’s was the same size. Lester Pearson built the welfare state with 28 ministers; Mackenzie King fought Depression and world war with cabinets of 20 or fewer.

That said, it seems a fit enough group. If Bill Blair and Andrew Leslie were the most glaring omissions, the elevation of Stephane Dion to foreign affairs was the happiest surprise (though Marc Garneau, the party’s critic for foreign affairs in opposition, will be licking his wounds at Transport.) There are no obvious clunkers at the outset, though I suppose we will find out who they are in time. On the whole, the merit principle, derided of late as either meaningless or a defence of privilege, seems to have been honoured.

(To answer a thousand smart-asses: the issue with quotas is not and never was with the merits of women in general, or of Liberal MPs in particular. Had the prime minister simply appointed the cabinet he did Wednesday, without formally stipulating its gender composition in advance — had he simply picked the best people he could find, in other words, half of whom, or 80 per cent of whom, happened to be women — there would have been no argument.)

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean KilpatrickTHE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean KilpatrickJustin Trudeau's cabinet seems a fit enough group, Andrew Coyne writes.

Of course, 31 ministers are not actually going to govern the country. As in all recent governments, there is a cabinet for show, and a cabinet for real. Who will emerge as the dominant ministers will of course depend on how they perform, or are seen to perform, and who has the prime minister’s ear. But it’s possible to gather a preliminary sense of who’s who from their assignments in cabinet and on cabinet committees.

To begin, there are the traditional senior ministers. The well-regarded Jody Wilson-Raybould is an obvious powerhouse at Justice, with a background as a Crown prosecutor, B.C. Treaty Commissioner and native leader. Likewise for Bill Morneau at Finance, where the hope will be that executive experience and policy chops — he has both a Master’s in Economics and an MBA — are adequate compensation for inexperience in politics.

Former army commander and police detective Harjit Sajjan is an impressive if surprising (given the availability of Leslie) choice at National Defence. Dominic LeBlanc, long-time Trudeau friend and consummate political animal, will soon dispel illusions of a new age of bipartisan comity as Government House Leader. And former Newfoundland cabinet minister Judy Foote seems a solid pick for Public Works (now called Public Services and Procurement).

All five, along with the prime minister, are part of cabinet’s core committee on agenda and results (the former priorities and planning), sometimes called the “inner cabinet.” They are joined there by several ministers with assignments high on the incoming government’s agenda.

Ralph Goodale, a veteran of several portfolios in past Liberal governments, will have the task of overhauling Bill C-51, the Conservatives’ contentious anti-terrorism bill, as minister of Public Safety. Jean-Yves Duclos, former head of the Economics Department at Laval University, will stickhandle the Liberals’ promised reform of child benefits as Minister of Families, Children and Social Development. Chrystia Freeland, as International Trade Minister, takes on the unfinished Trans-Pacific and -Europe trade agreement files.

Rounding out the committee are Trudeau confidants Melanie Joly, a lawyer and former Montreal mayoral candidate, at Heritage and Navdeep Bains at Industry (now called Innovation, Science and Economic Development: this is a government with an already established penchant for long titles). Then there are the chairs of the various other cabinet committees. Scott Brison brings a reputation as a fiscal conservative as president of the Treasury Board. Health may not be the top-drawer portfolio it was, but as chair of the committee on inclusive growth, opportunities and innovation (can’t we just call it the economy?) Jane Philpott will have significant input into government policy across a broad range of files. John McCallum, former bank economist and Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, will chair the committee on diversity and inclusion, among other responsibilities.

(Other committee chairs: LeBlanc of parliamentary affairs, which seems to have replaced operations; Goodale of Canada in the world and public security, Freeland of a sub-committee on Canada-U.S. relations, Foote of open and transparent government, Dion of environment, climate change and energy, while Trudeau himself chairs intelligence and emergency Management.)

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Three other ministers are worth mentioning. Human rights lawyer Catherine McKenna will not only have responsibility for one of the government’s highest-priority files as Minister of Environment and Climate Change, but sits on five cabinet committees including Treasury Board. Jim Carr, former president of the Business Council of Manitoba, will have a similarly full datebook, while no doubt providing input on the climate change file as Minister of Natural Resources. And Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay’s 26 years of experience in federal politics will prove handy as the other five-committee member.

One last point. It may have struck you that the government’s headline-making commitment to “gender parity,” when it comes to the formal cabinet, does not seem to extend into the cabinet’s inner workings. Not only are seven of the 10 committee chairs men, but they form a majority on all but two of the committees, including seven of 11 members of agenda and results and eight of 11 Treasury Board members and alternates.

I cannot imagine how, in 2015, the prime minister can possibly explain this discrepancy. Surely he will not maintain it was because there were not enough qualified women?

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