“If we believe in democracy, surely the essence of parliamentary democracy is rule by amateurs, and most governments prove that. We call on the experts to get expert views and opinions and ideas and policy and implementation, but ordinary people are elected by ordinary people to make decisions for all of us. That’s the basis of our system.” Charles Jackson “Bud” Wildman
In Westminster parliamentary systems, the cabinet is a council of ministers chaired by the Prime Minister. In some countries, the Cabinet is the senior echelon of the Ministry. The terms “Cabinet” and “Ministry” are sometimes used interchangeably, a subtle inaccuracy which can spark confusion. In Canada, all members of the Ministry are also currently members of Cabinet, but this is not always the case. In the UK, for example, not all members of the Ministry are members of Cabinet.
In the US, the Constitution states that “no person holding any office under the United States, shall be a member of either house during his continuance in office.” Accordingly, a sitting member of the U.S. Congress must resign from his or her seat in Congress to accept a Cabinet appointment. This clause also bars any member of Congress from holding an executive office that was created by law during his/her current term in Congress. Thus a US President can choose cabinet members from any walk of life, often seeking out experts in given fields from the private sector, academia, etc.
In Westminster parliamentary democracies, the Prime Minister normally chooses members of his or her cabinet from among the elected MPs, usually from his or her own party, and sometimes from the unelected upper House (either the House of Lords in the UK or the Senate in Canada). However, in Canada at least, it is permissible to choose those who are not elected to serve. Hence why ours is a government by fortunate amateurs – plucked from the obscurity of the backbenches. While amateurs, this is not to imply that those who become ministers are not talented, able individuals. Many, perhaps most, are. However, in Canada at least, many may owe their place in cabinet to factors other than skill and abilities.
There is a tradition in Canadian politics that the Cabinet be representative of the country’s regional and linguistic traditions. The Prime Minister will often look to have at least one Cabinet Minister from each province or region in Canada. This convention recognizes the fact that Canada is a federation. It is also tradition for the Prime Minister to attempt to strike an appropriate balance in Cabinet between the interests of French and English Canada; typically one-third of Cabinet Ministers are French-speaking, with the remainder being anglo- or allophones. The precise regional and linguistic makeup of a Cabinet, however, often depends on the pool of MPs elected.
It isn’t unusual for a political party to fail to win any seats in one or some provinces, or to win only a few, leaving the Prime Minister with a rather limited pool of talent from which to choose. In instances where the governing party fails to elect a single MP from a given province, the PM may choose to appoint a senator from that province to represent the province in Cabinet, or name an MP from a neighbouring province to also act as spokesperson for the province in question. In the 2006 general election, which resulted in a Conservative minority government, the Conservatives had not won any seats in or around the City of Montreal, and only 10 MPs from the entire province of Quebec. To address this, the new Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, appointed Montreal businessperson Michel Fortier to cabinet on February 6, the day the government took office. Fortier at that time was neither an MP nor a Senator, but Harper announced that Fortier would be appointed to the Senate, but would be expected to step down and run for a seat in the House of Commons at the general election. Fortier was appointed to the Senate on February 27. This practice is unusual in modern Canada, but there was precedent for such a practice: in 1979, former Prime Minister Joe Clark appointed Quebec Senator Jacques Flynn Minister of Justice because of his lack of representation in that province. In 1972, when Liberal Prime Minister Pierre E. Trudeau failed to win a single seat west of Manitoba, he appointed senators to cabinet as well.
The Conservatives had also failed to win any seats in the province of Prince Edward Island, and so Nova Scotia MP and newly-appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs also served as PEI’s representative in Cabinet.
There are other factors to consider when appointing ministers. If a new Prime Minister takes office after a leadership contest, he or she will often appoint, at the very least, his or her chief rival to a key cabinet post. Often the other leadership candidates will also be rewarded with cabinet appointments. An MP who wins a seat in a riding long held by another party, may be rewarded for that feat. In the rare instances where a coalition government takes office, the Prime Minister must find key positions for members from the other party or parties in the coalition, which can often upset members of his or her own caucus who thought they were shoe-ins for a cabinet post (and probably would have been had the party won a majority or opted to govern as a minority government rather than a coalition).
The Canadian tradition of trying to ensure regional and linguistic representation in Cabinet might strike some as ridiculous, unnecessary and unfair, since many very able MPs may be overlooked in favour of less able MPs simply because the party has an oversupply of MPs from some parts of the country and a dearth from others. However, there are others who argue that the focus on linguistic and regional representation isn’t enough, that this does not adequately address the representation of several other important social groups such as aboriginals, women and major visible minority groups. Cabinets tend to be overwhelmingly male and white.
This perceived need to have a Cabinet that reflects, at the very least, the country’s regions and linguistic traditions has yet another consequence: Canada’s cabinet is one of the largest, if the not the largest, in the democratic world. The new cabinet sworn in last week has 39 ministers. The US Cabinet currently contains 16 members, including the Vice-President. There are, in addition, six “cabinet-level officers”, none of whom has executive responsibility for any department. The British Cabinet consists of 23 ministers (one of whom is unpaid), including the Prime Minister. Five other officials attend cabinet meetings, but are not considered full members of cabinet. Neither is the Attorney General, although he sometimes attends. Germany has 16 ministers, including the Chancellor, Japan 17 ministers, including the Prime Minister, France 16 full ministers, including the Prime Minister, plus 7 “ministres auprès d’un ministre” and 8 secretaries of state. Italy, 25 ministers, including the Prime Minister. Thirteen have departmental responsibility; 11 are ministers without portfolio. Australia, 20 ministers, including the Prime Minister and New Zealand has 20 ministers, including the Prime Minister, plus 8 ministers outside cabinet, some from supporting parties in the coalition. (Source)