Opinion: Advice on building a cabinet

Opinion: Advice on building a cabinet

On the principle that everyone is entitled to my opinion, I am offering the following advice to premier-designate Wab Kinew on some considerations involved with creating his first cabinet. The advice is free so I am sure that our new premier, whom I have never met, will treat it for what it is worth.

I start from the premise that cabinet-making is difficult because it combines hard-headed political calculations with soft-hearted consideration of human aspirations and group dynamics.

Creating and leading a cabinet involves the exercise of both “hard power” in the form of the authority and prerogatives, which belong to the position of premier, and “soft power,” which involves inclusion, recognition, persuasion and accommodation of diverse values, interests and perspectives among elected MLAs in the governing party. A commitment to collective decision-making is valuable, but don’t leave any doubt about who is ultimately in charge.

Cabinet formation involves key decisions on how many ministers, what will be the scope and content of each cabinet position, who will fill each cabinet post, how many cabinet committees will be created and what their memberships will be, and how dispersed or centralized decision-making will be.

The values of representation, efficiency, competence and group dynamics must shape the composition of the cabinet. Mr. Kinew has promised a smaller cabinet than under former premier Stefanson, which had 19 members. Because of the need to achieve balanced representation based on gender, geography, experience, and, sometimes, competing political factions within the governing party, there are always pressures to increase the size of cabinet.

The newly elected NDP caucus is dominated by MLAs from Winnipeg and the north, with poor representation from rural Manitoba. Premier Kinew must consider this representation gap when making appointments to lead departments such as agriculture and transportation. To encourage responsiveness to rural concerns, he should consider the appointment of a hybrid caucus advisory committee consisting of backbench MLAs and party representatives from outside of Winnipeg.

There are always more MLAs with aspirations to be at the centre of government decision-making than there are spots available. In opposition, Mr. Kinew appointed a “shadow cabinet” with each of his 18 MLAs assigned a role as a designated critic for a government minister. These MLAs might expect to be in cabinet, even leading the department they shadowed. However, if Mr. Kinew was shrewd, he will have preserved his flexibility by not explicitly promising cabinet roles to anyone.

Only one of the 34 NDP MLAs has ever sat around a cabinet table. This is usually the case after a party has been out of office for an extended period. Experience in cabinet is not always a reliable predictor of how well an MLA will perform as minister.

Studies indicate that first-term ministers are more prone to make mistakes, which is why there should be training for ministers and there should not be a rush to move forward with all election promises simultaneously.

Matching backgrounds and skills of individuals to specific cabinet jobs involves tricky judgments and political risks. In an era of permanent campaigning, strong communications skills have become crucial to successful ministerial performance.

Beyond the premiership, the two toughest cabinet jobs are finance and health care, so the placement of capable individuals in those roles is essential. Assigning two ministers to cover the sprawling and turbulent healthcare portfolio makes a lot of sense.

Issuing published mandate letters to ministers as a mechanism to reinforce government-wide goals and to promote accountability is an evolving practice in Canada, but it is not without controversy. Premier Stefanson chose not to use such letters whereas her predecessor Brian Pallister used them for control and public relations purposes.

There are a number of structural and procedural features of cabinet which the premier has the prerogative to determine. To improve the quality and political acceptability of cabinet decisions, significant reliance should be placed on cabinet committees whose titles and mandates match the declared priorities of the government.

A priorities and planning committee chaired by the premier and a Treasury Board committee chaired by the finance minister are critical to setting direction and aligning budgets with policy choices. Committees should be granted the autonomy to make preliminary decisions subject to ratification by full cabinet.

To fulfil representation requirements and perhaps to soothe a few bruised egos, a premier should appoint the maximum allowed six Legislative Assistants, backbench MLAs who support ministers. To encourage the meaningful use of LAs, there should be a job description for each position.

Hopefully, there has been a transition committee working privately on the tasks required for taking office while you were campaigning. Don’t be caught up by slogans such as 100 days of decision.

Take time to work on issues that will provide some early wins and test your cabinet team. If problems arise, remember that it is your cabinet and you are entitled to make changes to personnel, structures and processes.

Paul G. Thomas is professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.


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