Cabinet ministers: the good, the bad, and the invisible

One of the (many) knocks against Prime Minister Stephen Harper is that he runs his government as a one-man show. The criticism may not be strictly accurate, but there are some grounds for it.

Tony Clement, for example — the Minister of Health — has been next to invisible. That’s despite the fact that the health portfolio is significant, and Clement had previous experience as a provincial cabinet minister.

One of the few standouts in Harper’s cabinet was David Emerson, who held a dual portfolio as the Minister of International Trade and Minister for the Pacific Gateway and the Vancouver-Whistler Olympics. Emerson is not seeking re-election.

Emerson is the exception that proves the rule. Emerson served as Industry Minister under Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, and won his seat in the last election as a Liberal candidate. He crossed the floor to the Conservative Party immediately after the election to join Harper’s cabinet. (Which was very controversial at the time, as you might imagine.)

The point is, one of the few Conservative ministers to serve with distinction was actually groomed for office by the previous Liberal administration.

I was reminded of all this today because I noticed that the Liberal candidate in our riding, Ottawa Centre, is Penny Collenette. The last name was familiar to me, so I googled it. Sure enough, Penny is the wife of a former Liberal cabinet minister, David Collenette.

David Collenette illustrates the point of this post, which is that Ministers should have enough responsibility to develop a public profile in their own right. I didn’t recall Collenette as a particularly outstanding minister. But in fact he was at the centre of some of the significant developments of that era:

  • first elected to Parliament in 1974, when Pierre Trudeau was Canada’s Prime Minister;
  • left politics for nine years after losing an election in 1984;
  • served as Minister of Veterans Affairs and Minister of National Defence under Prime Minister Chrétien;
  • as Minister of National Defense, he was on the hot seat when the Somalia affair came to light;
  • resigned over a minor scandal in 1996, then was re-admitted to Cabinet as Minister of Transport a few months later;
  • as Minister of Transport he presided over:
    1. the merger of Canadian Airlines and Air Canada;
    2. an increase in funding for Via Rail after years of cutbacks; and
    3. the grounding of hundreds of airplanes on Sept. 11, 2001, after the terrorist attacks.
  • Collenette retired from politics for the second time in 2004.

I’m impressed that Collenette, who stood in the shadow of several other ministers (Paul Martin, John Manley, Stéphane Dion, Allan Rock, Brian Tobin) nevertheless made some waves of his own.

What then of the Conservative cabinet? Canadians may recognize the names of some ministers — Peter MacKay, Stockwell Day, Chuck Strahl, Monte Solberg (who is not seeking re-election) — but few Canadians could name anything that any one of them has done.

Jim Flaherty (Minister of Finance) stands out primarily for spending money at a ferocious, most unconservative rate and for interfering in provincial politics in Ontario. Jim Prentice is perhaps the only minister other than David Emerson who has served with any distinction.

OK, the Conservatives have been in office for only two years, with a minority government. Nonetheless, I think it’s a fair criticism:  most of Harper’s cabinet is undistinguished by comparison to David Collenette. And Collenette was a second-tier cabinet minister in his day.


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