Martin’s 19th-century Cabinet

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
December 27, 2003

Paul Martin bills himself as a Prime Minister for the 21st century. His first Cabinet better suits the 19th century.

Take the inner circle of his Cabinet, the Priorities and Planning Committee. Among the ministers overseeing the high-level portfolios mandatory in any Cabinet’s inner circle – inherently powerful departments such as Finance, Justice, Health and Foreign Affairs – is a minister for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. A century and more ago, Canada’s fisheries, like our trapping and hunting industry, were all-important to our economy. Then came the great economic growth that accompanied the industrialization and the urbanization of our economy, which made the fisheries small in comparison, followed by government mismanagement of our cod and other fisheries, which made the fisheries much smaller again. Canada’s fisheries now represent less than one-tenth of 1% of Canada’s GDP and sinking. There is no economic merit in favouring this industry by awarding it a minister in the Cabinet of a modern economy. Even if the fisheries industry were privatized in the hands of individual fishermen, and grew ten-fold because it was now allowed to thrive, it would remain less than 1% of Canada’s economy. But if it were privatized, as it should be, it would have even less claim to ministerial representation.

Or take another inner circle Cabinet position, the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. It will emphasize two forms of welfare: handouts to aboriginals, to meet Mr. Martin’s desire to ease aboriginal poverty, and handouts to northern industries, to meet his desire to develop the hinterlands. As the government press release announcing the Cabinet appointees stated, this ministry will place “special emphasis on Northern Economic Development.”

The Cabinet rank given to the ministers charged with overseeing Canada’s rural reaches has nothing to do with creating a 21st century economy and everything to do with old-fashioned electoral pork: Though these rural areas don’t amount to much economically – in fact, their small amount of economic activity occurs at a net loss – they represent a hefty number of ridings. Even better, the cost of pork per rural riding is relatively low, because so few Canadians inhabit them. Buying them off becomes a prudent political investment for financial stewards.

Hence the parade of other ministers serving the unpopulated parts of Canada. There’s a minister for the economic development of northern Ontario, a minister in charge of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, and a minister in charge of Western Economic Diversification, all charged with delivering political pork. Plus a minister for agriculture to complement the minister for the fisheries, and a minister for the mining and forestry industries in the form of a Minister of Natural Resources. All natural resources combined, including the energy sector, Canada’s one profitable resource sector, account for less than 5.5% of Canada’s GDP.

As for the populated parts of Canada, Mr. Martin has appointed no minister for either city or suburb. No urban industry, except for the financial sector, rates a Cabinet member.

The Martin Cabinet has nothing to do with boldly reinventing the Canadian economy for the 21st century. It is, however, a bold and audacious Pre-Election Cabinet. With Urban Canada unlikely to leave the Liberals for the new Conservative Party of Canada, so leery of immigrants and otherwise socially conservative, Mr. Martin is plotting a historic sweep of the rest of the country. The sweep starts at the Atlantic, where the new Minister of Fisheries and Oceans is charged with netting all the ridings now held by the Tories. It rolls through Quebec, where the Bloc Quebecois is in disarray. It picks up Ontario, which is solid Liberal country. And with a Cabinet now weighted to the West, it goes for the gold and a crushing majority.

The 21st century begins for Mr. Martin after the spring election. He will then be at liberty to select a Cabinet that reflects his true disposition. Canadians will then discover whether Martin the Prime Minister craves something more than merely acquiring power, and whether the next century will look any different to him than the last.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and Consumer Policy Institutes, divisions of Energy Probe Research Foundation. E-mail:

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