The First Test of a Leader is the People They Appoint

When filling crucial roles in government it is essential to find candidates with the right competencies. In the case of the Trudeau government, that has been crowded out by other considerations.

In days of yore—say the sixties and seventies—there would be a couple of dozen ministers with real jobs: finance, defence, health, foreign affairs, agriculture, fisheries, justice, transportation, and so on.

Having filled those positions, the prime minister of the day would notice that some regions were underrepresented. This was addressed by having half a dozen ministers without portfolio, a useful way of bringing diverse voices to the cabinet table without creating departments of make-work projects.

Today we live in an age of greater demographic sensitivity. In addition to geography, it is important to ensure that the voices include a suitable number of women and represent Canada’s ethnic diversity.

The notion of a minister without a portfolio would be even more valuable in that context. There might be a need for half a dozen more of them.

Unfortunately, the idea is now only found in the history books. We have a cabinet of more than three dozen ministries, many of which amount to very little. Consider, for example, these “portfolios”: Special Representative For The Prairies, Diversity and Inclusion and Youth, Middle-Class Prosperity, International Development.

It is telling that the mandates for these roles largely consist of supporting other ministers.

The problem is not that these are unimportant topics. It is that they are subsets of other jobs: Agriculture, Labour, Economic Development, Foreign Affairs. It would have been better to have ministers without a portfolio who could have been deputized as needed.

Having Ministers with made-up jobs is bad organizational design at the best of times but occasionally the mandatory box-ticking causes real damage.

In 2019, Trudeau lost Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould, two of his capable ministers, who resigned because of his handling of the SNC Lavalin affair. This left Trudeau short of his commitment to always have at least half of his ministers be women.

At the same time, Scott Brison, the Nova Scotian representative in cabinet, had also resigned. There were nine other Liberal MPs, some with long and distinguished records. But there was only one woman, who had first been elected in 2015, after a career as a fundraiser for the Health Services Foundation of the South Shore.

Thus Bernadette Jordan, MP for South Shore-St. Margarets, became Minister of Fisheries, a job requiring wisdom, tactfulness, and carefully considered articulations of policy positions. It has not gone well.

When the Sipekne’katik band chose to unilaterally begin an out-of-season moderate livelihood fishery, she chose not to enforce the regulations. This resulted in entirely predictable confrontations with non-indigenous fishers. It also disabled the efforts of bands wanting to work cooperatively with the government and non-indigenous fishers.

Meanwhile, she chose to enforce those same regulations against the Potlotek and Eskasoni bands doing the same thing. No coherent explanation of the difference was provided.

In a recent about-face, she now says that the rules will be enforced for everyone and that the moderate livelihood fishery is to be done in the regular season.

As challenging the gender mandate is with three times as many male MPs as female, it must be emphasized that the problems are not limited to those appointed to meet the quota.

Consider the case of Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault. His Bill C-10 would amend the Broadcasting Act to make internet streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney, and YouTube subject to the regulation of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. They would be treated like traditional broadcasters, having to promote Canadian content and contribute financially to Canadian creators.

It was quickly noticed by the parliamentary committee studying the bill that it would apply to the content that users themselves would create. Never mind that this accident was only noticed when pointed out by opposition MPs. Beyond that, it is frightening to imagine the bureaucracy that would be needed to do what the bill says. Guilbeault has been hapless throughout.

The biggest flaw is that the Bill does nothing to address the real problems of Big Tech. Search engines and social networks are thoroughly manipulative engines designed to present as much advertising copy as possible to our eyeballs. In the process, they facilitate groupthink and confirmation bias, become vehicles for malicious actors, and can do real harm to children.

The weaknesses of the Trudeau team’s appointment process are not limited to ministers. This is the group that thought Julie Payette would be a perfect Governor General, who overlooked sexual misbehaviour when appointing military officers to top roles, and who gift-wrapped the Canada Student Summer Grant program for the WE charity.

The laudable goal of hearing diverse voices cannot supersede the need for competent appointments to crucial jobs.


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