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Harper's Cabinet Shuffle Was All Sizzle, No Steak

07/17/2013 11:05 EDT | Updated 09/16/2013 05:12 EDT

If I had any lingering doubts regarding my decision to resign from the Conservative Caucus to sit as an Independent in the House of Commons, this week's Cabinet shuffle certainly removed them. The facelift did nothing to either restore an appropriate balance between the front and back benches or address the other democratic deficits that plague Ottawa.

First, the cabinet is too large. At 39 members, this Cabinet is morbidly obese. No deliberative body can function with that many members. Anyone who has ever served on a volunteer board of directors understands that meetings and decisions become paralyzed when more than a dozen people are involved in the process. I remain perplexed as to why the United States, with approximately nine times the population of Canada, can function with only 15 Cabinet Secretaries but Canada needs almost 40 Ministers!

Moreover, 12 of the Cabinet appointees are Ministers of State, which means they are not full ministers but rather handle some specified aspect of a senior Minister's portfolio. Examples include the Minister of State for Small Business and Tourism (Industry Portfolio) and Minister of State for Social Development (part of new portfolio called Employment and Social Development). As these Ministers of State or junior ministers do not manage departments of their own, their purpose, beyond communication, is questionable. To the extent that they have decision-making authority, their office creates another level of bureaucracy within the Ministry itself, further complicating an already overly complex decision-making process.

Interestingly, three of the Ministers of State have no responsibility other than overseeing economic development within their respective geographic regions (Southern Ontario, Atlantic Canada, and the West). These offices of regional economic development are much maligned vehicles for subsidizing private enterprise with public dollars and are an anathema to true conservatives. Not only has a "conservative" government created more of them, they are now giving them full-time political guardians. In a run up to an election, we will sadly see them become even more visible and the prospects for eliminating the deficit even more distant.

The addition of four women to Cabinet, bringing the total to 12, has been greatly heralded. I know each of the four female inductees reasonably well and each is competent, distinguished, and fully qualified for her newly assumed duties. So why do commentators have to focus on the gender of the appointees? The discourse suggests that gender is the reason for these appointments.

It strikes at the very heart of the debate as to what qualifies a Member of Parliament to sit at the big table. If you accept the premise that no functional decision making body can be comprised of an unwieldy 39 members, it becomes easy to comprehend why cabinets have become so bloated. Ceasing to be deliberative bodies quite some time ago, they have in fact become representative bodies. Great care is exercised to assure that every region and every province has comparable representation. Gender balance becomes important, as do attempts to make sure that ethnic communities are adequately represented. A perfectly chosen representative cabinet would be a microcosm of Canadian society.

Which brings us to yesterday's shuffle. The PMO's own communication products talked about generational change and heralded the four new female Ministers. Why? Because the spin doctors believe (probably correctly) that the government is still comparatively popular among older, male voters. Appealing to the younger generation, especially young women, however, remains an electoral challenge for this government. The obvious solution, therefore, was to replace some grumpy old men in cabinet with young, telegenic, women.

So along with the firmly planted Government House Leader, nothing really changes as a result of yesterday's shuffle. Politics continues to trump policy and optics remain more important than effectiveness as the government feels electorally insecure alongside a much younger NDP Caucus and a young, social-media savvy leader of the Liberals.

Yesterday's cabinet facelift was cosmetic at best and similar to the government's own ironic characterization of the man leading in the polls: all sizzle and no steak.

This post originally appeared on Brent Rathbeber's blog.

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