Chrétien's New Cabinet

As usual, the makeup of the cabinet sent out unmistakable signals about the government's priorities and intentions. In addition to Chrétien, there are 22 other Ontarians and Quebecers in the group, reflecting Liberal strength in the centre of the country.

Chrétien, Jean 1997
Jean Chrétien on the eve of the 1997, which he and his Liberal Party defended their majority (courtesy Maclean's).

Chrétien's New Cabinet

 Introductions were hardly necessary. Of course, there were a few new faces among the federal cabinet ministers who emerged from the swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall into the steaming Ottawa heat last week. And Prime Minister Jean Chrétien did give some old names different responsibilities. All told, though, 28 of the 36 cabinet members and junior ministers were part of the government's inner circle before the June 2 election, which saw the Liberal's healthy majority sliced to 155 seats - a scant four seats away from a minority government. Despite the scare the Liberals received on election day, the Prime Minister seemed happy with what he termed his "new" crew. "We have an excellent team to lead Canada into the new millennium," he boasted to reporters after the ceremony. But amidst the pomp and circumstance of the occasion, at least one big question went unanswered: how will the same old politicians solve the bewildering array of problems that still loom ahead for their chastened government?

As usual, the makeup of the cabinet sent out unmistakable signals about the government's priorities and intentions. In addition to Chrétien, there are 22 other Ontarians and Quebecers in the group, reflecting Liberal strength in the centre of the country. But the Grits also reached out to disenchanted western voters - nine of the 15 Liberal MPs elected west of Ontario were made cabinet ministers or secretaries of state (junior ministers who do not have full cabinet rank). Victoria MP David Anderson took over Fisheries from Newfoundlander Fred Mifflin, a move applauded by B.C. Premier Glen Clark, who is facing an acrimonious battle with the United States over declining fish stocks. The high-profile position of justice minister also went to a westerner, Anne McLellan of Edmonton. An olive branch was held out to Atlantic Canada, where the Grits were dealt their sharpest election rebuke. Out of 11 MPs - down from 31 in the last government, including the loss of two ministers - four received cabinet posts.

Other choices drew less attention but could be no less significant. By leaving the key economic portfolios in the hands of fiscal conservatives - Paul Martin at Finance, John Manley in Industry and Marcel Massé at the Treasury Board - Chrétien is clearly resisting calls to start spending. Instead, aggressive deficit reduction will continue until the books are balanced, he suggested last week. The challenge of running a government with such a slim majority explained why Chrétien replaced a personal favorite, former deputy prime minister Sheila Copps, with the vastly more experienced Herb Gray. At the same time, Ontario francophone Don Boudria was promoted from the lowly post of minister of international co-operation to the key position of House Leader, where he will run the day-to-day operation of the Commons.

But even with these changes, the precariousness of the Liberal majority means the government cannot let down its guard: failure to have enough Grits in Parliament at any particular time means the government could risk losing a non-confidence vote. For the immediate future, however, the animosity among Reform, the Tories, the New Democrats and the Bloc Québécois seems too deep-seated for them to form an anti-government front.

That does not mean, however, that the Liberals can afford to be complacent. Within the Liberal caucus, signs of strain are already beginning to show. At this point, no MPs have had the temerity to voice their complaints openly, as have grassroots Liberals outside Central Canada, who loudly blame the Prime Minister - or his team of political advisers - for the decline in party fortunes. "Chrétien has to resign halfway through the term and we need to get Paul Martin in there," says one longtime Liberal worker in Calgary. "At least he is willing to listen to ideas. Chrétien has closed his mind to ideas."

And privately, MPs from the left wing of the party have argued that the 20 seats lost in Atlantic Canada prove it is time to stop cutting government expenditures and start spending again. Last week's events probably did not make them feel any happier. Before the new cabinet was announced, a number of MPs suggested that the government was ready to move to the left and "be Liberal again." But Chrétien, along with Martin, squelched that talk. "We're on course," reiterated Chrétien after a two-day cabinet retreat last week, "and we will maintain our target of having no deficit within two years."

Still, there have been dramatic changes since June 2. For one, never before has a government faced four officially recognized parties. Last week provided a vivid demonstration of what lies ahead in the splintered Parliament. No sooner had the swearing-in ceremony ended, than the four opposition leaders trooped, one after the other, before the microphones in the National Press Theatre to take their shots at members of cabinet. It got personal when Reform Leader Preston Manning - whose 60-member caucus is drawn entirely from Western Canada - accused Anne McLellan of using patronage promises to cling to her Edmonton seat and warned her that his party will be watching her "like a hawk" for any political payoffs. A baffled McLellan simply called the broadside "amazing."

Allan Rock, who had a rough ride during 3½ years in the justice portfolio, is unlikely to find life any easier as minister of health, a job that came open after Cape Breton MP David Dingwall lost his seat. His central challenge: after years of cutting billions from the health-care system, he must help rebuild the Liberals' reputation as a compassionate party, by saving the beleaguered medicare system and, as he promised last week, even expanding it with universal pharmacare and home-care programs. "He is a strong minister," noted Dr. Judith Kazimirski, president of the Canadian Medical Association, "and I think this signals that health is a top priority."

The message was less clear in Art Eggleton's appointment as minister of the besieged department of national defence. Eggleton, previously international trade minister, told reporters he only learned he had inherited the portfolio - previously held by defeated New Brunswicker Doug Young - when Chrétien called and said, "Hello minister of defence." Eggleton likely will face his first hurdle when the Somalia inquiry report, expected to be a scathing indictment of the senior defence leadership, is released at the end of the month. Then there is the military's poor morale and the shrinking defence budget.

Even in Atlantic Canada, the appointment of four cabinet members, including Alasdair Graham, who became government leader in the Senate after Alberta's Joyce Fairburn stepped down to open up a seat for the cabinet's only Nova Scotian, does not seem to have had the desired effect. Says Agar Adamson, a political science professor at Nova Scotia's Acadia University: "The region is without a strong voice at the cabinet table." A few new faces are one thing, but this remains a government with coast-to-coast problems.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

On the face of it, finding office space for Canada's 301 MPs should not be that difficult. After all, there is enough room - if only just - in the six buildings in downtown Ottawa that make up the parliamentary precinct. But if past experience is any guide, there are likely to be some bruised egos when members from the five parties finally find out who gets which offices. Following the 1993 election, a turf battle raged for weeks. A raft of Reform MPs, newly arrived in Ottawa, demanded better locations and the same amount of space as the Bloc Québécois, who were then the official Opposition. In reality, however, Reform's anger was aimed more at the governing Liberals, whom they believed were favoring the separatists. This time, government whip Bob Kilger has been charged with keeping order among those jockeying for a prime spot in a status-conscious place. "Of course we'd all like to be in the Centre Block," he says. "But what's important is the job you do, not where your office is."

With 60 members, Reform now enjoys the perks and extra funding that go with being the official Opposition. But party whip Chuck Strahl remains wary of government manoeuvring. "Last time, all we got were the guts and feathers and we were spread all over God's green acre," he recalls, referring to the unseemly scramble in 1993. In this go-round, the Liberals again get first crack, and as usual all the party leaders and whips have been assured places in the Centre Block - Parliament's top accommodation. Incumbent members are also favored: they are permitted to trade up to the vacant offices of former MPs, which means that the best spots are quickly claimed. As Strahl concedes: "To the victor go the spoils."

In addition to the Bloc Québécois, which is now the third party with 44 seats, the New Democrats with 21 and the Tories with 20 are both cruising for docking space. NDP whip John Solomon, while bitter about the treatment of the party's nine MPs in 1993, said last week he does not sense the same petty vindictiveness. "Kilger seems to be listening," Solomon says. "I'm sure he wants to avoid opposition hostility before the new Parliament even sits." If the antics over office-space bode ill for the ability of MPs to deal with matters of substance, there is more ahead: decisions will soon be made about where each MP will actually sit in the House of Commons. Now that will require diplomacy.

Maclean's June 23, 1997