A former Manitoba premier once told me that the most difficult and loneliest part of the job was choosing a cabinet, because it involves dealing face to face with elected MLAs who have supported the party cause and, often, your leadership role. Decisions on the size, membership, structure and departmental assignments involve a range of considerations, such as balancing individual competence with the representation of various interests.
No one will be shocked to read that politicians have egos and ambitions. Most want to be where the action is, which in a governing party means being in cabinet. But there are always more aspirants to cabinet than spots available, so cabinet selection always produces publicly identifiable winners and losers. Finding the right person to fill the right cabinet job can be difficult and uncertain.
Following his 2016 victory, citing efficiency considerations, Premier Brian Pallister appointed a small cabinet of just 12 ministers, a number that subsequently grew to 14.
The pressures for a large cabinet are obvious. There is a need to achieve balanced representation based on gender, region, ethnicity and, sometimes, competing political factions within the governing party. Larger cabinets may, however, sacrifice competence, since not all MLAs have the talents to lead a department and defend the performance of the government. Achieving a harmonious, cohesive cabinet team is also a consideration.
Just to remind readers, here are the fundamentals of how power is formally distributed within our system of representative and responsible government and how practice differs from theory: although party leaders dominate campaign coverage, voters do not directly elect the premier. A party leader becomes the political head of government when his party wins a majority or plurality of seats in the 57-seat legislature.
Formally, the lieutenant-governor appoints the cabinet. But this is always based on the premier’s choices. In principle, premiers are only first among equals in the cabinet. In practice, however, they have no equals. Decision-making on major policy matters is meant to be collective, taking place within cabinet. But increasingly, the premier controls the government agenda and reserves the right to decide its priorities.
Unfortunately for outside commentators, cabinet proceedings are mostly cloaked in secrecy, so comments on the dynamics of cabinet necessarily involve some amount of speculation. It does appear, however, that for several reasons cabinet has declined as a deliberative body in recent decades.
First, politics has become more personalized, with party leaders becoming the main focal point of media attention. Second, power within government has become more concentrated in the premier’s office. Third, a campaign style of governing has led to centralized message control, involving strict confidentiality, focus and consistent messaging.
In summary, there is less collective deliberation inside government and external communications are all about achieving positive headlines.
This does not mean that cabinet government is dead and the premier is all-powerful. The opinions of some cabinet ministers are not easily ignored; cabinet also serves as a sounding board for testing policy initiatives and sets limits on the freedom of the premier.
Based on the constitutional principle that there must always be a government in place, Pallister and his 14-member cabinet have remained in charge during the current election campaign. However, by convention their decision-making was restricted to routine matters — major policy decisions, especially those not easily reversed, were not supposed to be made. This so-called "caretaker convention" is meant to ensure that a new government formed by a different party would not be have its freedom of action restricted.
If, as recent polls suggest, the Progressive Conservatives are re-elected, there will still be a new government. Current ministers will resign on the day of appointment of the new government and new ministers will be sworn in. A transition within a governing party might seem easier than a handoff to a new party, but there are still complications involved.
Conceivably, Pallister could reappoint the entire cabinet, reasoning that they contributed to the victory and there is less political risk going with experienced ministers than with newcomers. On the other hand, an election victory would represent an opportunity to bring potentially impatient backbench MLAs into cabinet. Balancing experience and new energy could signal a commitment to stay the course while building for the future, which coincidentally is the PCs’ campaign slogan.
Cabinet-building is difficult and lonely because it combines hard-headed political calculations with soft-hearted consideration of human aspirations and group dynamics.
Paul G. Thomas is professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.