01/07/2015 06:06 EST | Updated 03/09/2015 05:59 EDT

The 2015 Election: A Morbidly Obese Cabinet With A Singular Focus


With the addition of the Honourable Erin O'Toole as the Minister of Veterans' Affairs, the current federal cabinet has ballooned to 40 members, tying the largest cabinet in Canadian history--that of also "conservative" Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney.

Removing Julian Fantino from the troubled portfolio was both necessary and long overdue; what is unclear (yet very clear) to me was the necessity of making up a new position for him--Associate Minister of National Defence, purportedly just to keep him in cabinet.

I don't know Erin O'Toole; he arrived in Ottawa in a by-election following Bev Oda's resignation, mere months before I left the Conservative Caucus in June of 2013. What I do know is that his star has been rising ever since he got there. Quickly promoted to Parliamentary Secretary for International Trade and now into cabinet, Minister O'Toole has demonstrated himself to be an extremely able communicator of the government messaging. He is frequently dispatched to the 5 p.m. cable panels and the Sunday morning network political shows to defend the government, on matters increasingly unrelated to matters of trade.

He has proven adept at twisting himself into pretzels to defend the indefensible (such as Julian Fantino's management of the department he now inherits), drawing upon nuanced distinctions between the current government's record and the record of the previous Liberal Administration. He does it all with a smile on his face, rarely but occasionally he will concede ground or make an admission, leaving the viewer with the impression that he is both knowledgeable and genuine.

And that is the problem. He may be a brilliant administrator; we will likely never find out. His ability to solve actual problems at Veterans' Affairs depends on financial resources and decisions regarding budgets are made somewhere between the Ministry of Finance and the PMO.

In my view, he is a slick salesman; a pitchman much more interested in selling you on a record than actually solving a problem. A lawyer with a silver tongue deployed to provide credible spin where the need for a communication strategy was so clearly evident.

He is there to communicate and sell decisions made elsewhere; decisions he will have limited to no input into. His role will be that of pitchman and of shill. He has assumed the role of "Communister".

Minister O'Toole's new role is clear to me; Julian Fantino's much less so.

The necessity of a federal cabinet ballooning to 40 members is unclear to me. The United States, a country with a population almost nine times that of Canada, seems to get by with a trim assemblage of 16 cabinet secretaries.

When Prime Minister Harper first assumed Office in 2006, he appointed a comparatively lean cabinet of only 26 Ministers. In fact his efficient team was in his own words "designed for work not for show...more focus and purpose; less process and cost."

Similar to his evolving positions on time allocation, transparent government, omnibus bills and now the size of cabinet, it is unlikely that the Stephen Harper of 2006 would recognize his morphed persona of 2015.

Current cabinets serve only political purposes. At 40 members, it is simply too large and cumbersome to be a deliberative body. It has transformed itself into a representative body, mindful of the needs for geographic and regional representation, ethnic composition and gender balance. Taking all of those issues into account, unnecessary growth in cabinet size is inevitable.

But if the primary purpose of the executive cabinet is to be the front lines of messaging for the government and Minister Fantino has proved so deficient in that regard, why keep him around?? As Helena Guergis, Bev Oda and even Mike Duffy have learned, they will defend you as long, but only so long, as you are a political asset, once you become a political liability, under the bus you go.

Given Julian Fantino's Italian heritage and connections within the Italian communities in around the Greater Toronto Area, he is, at least until the next election, still deemed to be a political asset. The 2015 election will be won or lost in large part based on the Conservatives' ability to hold onto its current seats in the GTA.

A morbidly obese cabinet, chosen largely because of the demographic one represents and/or skills of communication. That is the "focus and purpose" of a conservative cabinet in an election year.


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