A Consideration of Cabinet Size

A Consideration of Cabinet Size

Cabinet size has fluctuated in Canadian legislatures over the past century. Beginning in 1993, two federal governments introduced “roll back” cabinets which sought to significantly reduce the number of ministers. The author, focusing especially on the years 1993 to 2014, asks if Canadian governments have a “cabinet size problem.” He notes that since 1993 two trends have emerged: 1) cabinets are more likely to expand during government and more likely to consolidate between governments and 2) cabinet size is more likely to increase during government under centre-left parties than centre or centre-right parties. Although arguments for a reduction of cabinet size tend to focus on financial costs, the author highlights the political cost of having a large cabinet relative to the size of the legislature, as there are fewer private members to keep the government accountable.

Following a January 2014 cabinet shuffle, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 40-member federal ministry tied Brian Mulroney’s 1984 cabinet as the largest in Canadian history.1 Compared to other Westminster systems, Canadian cabinets have been noted for their large membership.2 Does Canada have a cabinet size problem? As Graham White wrote in 1990, “foreign visitors to Canada are frequently bewildered by the size of Canadian cabinets”.3 Beyond the institutional differences identified by political scientists between Westminster states, the size of the ministries in Canadian federal and provincial governments is subject to domestic scrutiny after each cabinet shuffle. On occasions of cabinet expansion, critics express austerity-themed worries of the cost of government and populist-based concerns of “too many politicians”. On occasions of cabinet reduction, first ministers are praised for “streamlining government” or “doing more with less”. Not surprisingly, Canadian politicians have been quick to pursue the positive responses to cabinet reduction, promising to appoint fewer ministers to cabinet.