Unqualified candidates please apply

Now that we’ve discussed the heck out of whether there will be a cabinet shuffle, when, who’s hot, not or forgot, and the optics of what actually did happen, can we talk about something else? Like the cabinet? No, really. I read the speculation (it’s my job). And I read the stories about who went up, down or sideways, plus insider commentary on key issues like Tory prospects in Quebec, their ability to sell the Afghan mission to voters and who introduced the prime minister to his wife. It’s like reality TV we have an excuse for watching. Without, fortunately, having to see Gordon O’Connor throw a fit wrapped in a towel.

Now we’re tired of it and ready to watch a sitcom — say, the zany antics of the New Ministers and their wacky neighbours, the Oppositions. Still, some high-end digital channel might air a nerdy show on the irrelevant question of what, exactly, qualifies various people for their cabinet posts.

Take Peter MacKay. Please. As you know, he was recently our foreign minister because he’d led the pre-merger Progressive Conservatives, remains a potential leadership contender and was not conspicuously prone to public gaffes, unless you count his recent slip on the Arctic ice when he warned Russia the North Pole was Canadian, a ringing declaration sadly not based in fact.

Maybe as defence minister he’ll do something about the Russian bombers now test-firing cruise missiles over this “Canadian” territory. Or not. But I digress. My point is that nothing in his C.V. would, in any other business, justify giving him such important, difficult and specialized posts. How many books on defence or diplomacy has he read in his life? (Not counting The North Pole: Mine Mine Mine by Johnny Canuck.)

The National Post editorial board liked him in defence because: “That ministry needs a high-profile minister who can talk about our Afghan mission in the broader context of its importance to the international community and how Canadians are improving the lives of ordinary Afghans….” I’m more concerned about whether he can run the mission. But I’m the sort of nebbish who thinks a grandmaster should be able to play the Benoni counter-gambit not just spin it, and understand its prospects on the board as well as in Quebec.

To be sure, the guy formally best qualified for his cabinet job was Gordon O’Connor, and he was just dumped from defence into national revenue to avoid conceding the obvious to the juvenile hecklers across the aisle. (The prime minister said of the 68-year-old former brigadier-general and military lobbyist: “It’s time for him to have some other experiences.” Like being fired sardonically.) But if he was not up to defence, what possible reason is there for thinking he’s ready for national revenue? Does the PM value his views on consumption taxes, the Ricardian equivalence theorem or the appropriate deduction for truckers’ lunches? Pshaw.

This being Canada, you might be reluctant to start down a road that leads to asking if this country should have a heritage minister who struggles with English. But this is picking nits. The real question is what qualifications any of these people bring to such jobs in this or any cabinet.

In this week’s “Monday Morning” column, Donna Jacobs profiled incoming Canadian Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Perrin Beatty, in cabinet at 29 and, under Brian Mulroney, minister of national revenue, solicitor general, minister of defence, health and welfare then communications, and Kim Campbell’s secretary of state for external affairs. He’s no fool, and I daresay he’s a quick study. But would even Mr. Beatty claim he was given these jobs because of how much he knew coming in, or that he held any of them long enough to figure out when his bureaucrats were feeding him a line? We wouldn’t hire bricklayers this way.

Let me not seem unkind to the prime minister. Especially with so many Senate vacancies going begging. Our system places severe constraints on his freedom of choice, from regional politics to internal party dynamics to a drastic shortage of MPs capable of doing any cabinet job at all, never mind well. Most ministers, caught between the pincers of the bureaucracy and the Prime Minister’s Office, have little impact on policy or administration, and usually it’s just as well. As Sir John A. Macdonald once responded to criticism of his ministers: “If you want a better cabinet, send me better wood.”

Voters ultimately control timber quality. But the routine failure of our system to produce candidates for ministerial office with anything resembling relevant professional qualifications is, I submit, a subject not yet exhausted by press coverage of this shuffle.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

Columns, PoliticsJohn Robson