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Conservative Challenges, Part 2: Expand the Talent Pool

Scott Proudfoot

Towards the end, Mr. Harper looked very much alone. Most of the strong figures in his Government had left.  He made the case during the campaign that it was not about him but it looked like he was all that was left.

Having now watched seven Prime Ministers and five Governments come and go; you notice the importance of stronger and weaker cabinets. There is not to  much about the cabinets of Mr. Clark, Mr. Turner, Ms. Campbell or Mr. Martin. They were not around long.   Both the Trudeau the Elder and Mulroney Governments had strong Cabinets.  Mr. Chretien’s was a step down but serviceable enough. Mr. Harper’s was the weakest cabinet by a significant degree; perhaps the weakest since R. B. Bennett’s.

The strength of the talent brought into Government and attracted once in Government matters for three reasons.

If the goal is more change, you need more ‘change agents’. Those poor souls suffering from Harper Derangement Syndrome frothed and fulminated about how he was changing Canada.  In fact, the Harper Government changed far less than it could have. Partially, this was a matter of governing style. When all major decisions are funnelled to the PMO, the Prime Minister’s bandwidth becomes the major bottleneck in a command and control system already layered with bottlenecks. If only a few Cabinet Ministers are trusted to generate change, then there is less change.

The second reason is competence. Too frequently, Harper Ministers lacked the competence to manage their responsibilities. This was evident in the reluctance of the PMO to allow them to actually answer questions about their Ministry in the House of Commons.  Areas in which the government should have been strong (e.g., Veterans Affairs and Defence Procurement) became points of weakness because the Ministers running them could not get ahead of problem files.

The third reason is leaders with strong teams are more electable and Governments with an ability to attract new talent tend to last longer.  This is not guaranteed. Fortune and unforeseen circumstances have derailed many promising governments.  But, on average, strong cabinets should increase the appeal and longevity of Governments.

The view that the Harper Cabinets were not strong is not mine alone. Other observers offered the same opinion over the last decade. But having said that, it is opinion not fact.  Scholars have developed no metric to objectively measure the relative strength or weaknesses of Cabinets.  We are reliant on our own experiences, personal impressions and ultimately the verdicts of historians.

But, if I cannot offer objective certainty, let me suggest a framework that may be useful.

Largely an invention of Georgian and the Victoria eras, our Parliamentary system does an effective job of producing good MPs.  This is reflected in the strengths of those candidates who have won but, also, the many strong local candidates who lose because timing and location are not in their favour.

Our political system is far less reliable at producing people with the skills and competence to manage a modern sprawling enterprise that operates a hundred or more separate businesses; grouped into a couple of dozen key areas with direct annual expenditures of $277 billion dollars and almost the same amount again in tax expenditures. There in an inevitable mismatch between the demands of the executive positions to be filled in a Cabinet and how much talent the electoral systems delivers to the party that earns the right to fill those jobs.

 (To illustrate this problem, do a little thought experiment. Pick the largest and most important Canadian companies; hospitals, universities and non-profits (30 in total). Then assume they had to fill their top jobs from a selection of 184 Canadians chosen at random. How well would the talent match up with those organizations’ needs?)

The starting point for all Governments in Canada is that they fall far short of the capacities and capabilities required to manage the responsibilities they have assumed.  So they make do while papering over their weaknesses.

The probability distribution of talent in Cabinet can be roughly divided into three groups.

There is the A Team. This is a handful of Ministers, who along with the Prime Minister and his/her key advisers, drive the agenda of Government. Either because of personal history, stature, and recognized competence, they hold the most important portfolios; chair the key cabinet committees; and are slotted into departments that have gotten into trouble and need a steady hand at the rudder. Every government has an A Team. Mr. Harper had Ministers Flaherty, Baird, Clement, Kenney and Prentice.

There is the B Team.  These are Cabinet Ministers who do not make the A team but can stand up in the House of Commons and handle questions about their department.  They can manage policy and legislative initiatives. They form effective working relationships with their officials.  They keep themselves out of trouble.

Then there is the C Team. They are just happy to be there. Their elevation is based on unwritten representational assumptions.  They may be the best choice available in a province where the Government has limited options. Maybe, they have party duties, or they come from a group the government wants to attract or they supported the Prime Minister at the right time in his or her ascension. No one expects much from them in terms of public policy. They leave the running of the department to their officials. They largely function as PR flacks for the PMO, the Party or their Departments. Their main job is to avoid embarrassing Government which they largely achieve by low visibility.

Since all Governments have an A Team, they are not the distinguishing difference between a strong or weak cabinet. Some A Teams are stronger than others but it is hard to prove. A Government with too many A Team Players can be more troubled than one with too few.  The concentration of strong personalities; egos; and naked ambition leads to ruptures.

We are more likely to think of a Government having a weaker Cabinet when there are too many C Team, and not enough B, Team members.  If we think of the elder Mr. Trudeau or Mr. Mulroney having stronger cabinets, it is because it is easy to name a long list of A and B Team calibre Cabinet Ministers.  It was a shorter list with Mr. Harper.

So why was Mr. Harper’s Cabinet weaker and are their any lessons to be drawn from it? 

Here are some possible answers.

It is largely random. Chance and circumstance play a far larger role in all our lives then we usually recognize. In Canada’s short history, we have had strong and weak cabinets and many in-between. So there is a type of Bell Curve at work. Strong Cabinets are the result of the right personalities coming together at the right time. That does not always happen and there could be thousands of individual reasons why it does and why it does not. On this basis, there is no great message in Mr. Harper’s Cabinet beyond circumstances just lined up in that fashion.

Mr. Harper’s Cabinet was stronger than it appeared.  It could be argued the particular restrictions and discipline the PMO had on message control tended to keep individual Harper Government Ministers from getting the public exposure they might have but, behind the scene, they were quite effective. This likely applied to a few individuals but I do not find it a convincing description of the Harper Government as a whole. But, I would expect those part of the regime to make the case and historians will have to sort it out.

The Harper Team electoral strategy was not built on strong individual candidates.  If you examine the election materials created by the Conservative Party in the Harper era; you note the lack of space devoted to candidates’ bios. It usually involved a picture of the candidate with his or her family and about 25 words:  successful small business person, active in the Community, committed to strong Conservative values, etc.  The purpose of party materials was to sell the Leader and a small number of core campaign messages. The role of the Conservative candidate was to knock on as many doors as possible and avoid saying anything stupid that would derail the national campaign. The Conservative Party was not opposed to having strong local candidates but the campaign did not depend on them for the campaigns it ran. They did not need stars.  They needed ‘types’ who would stick to the talking points and follow the system.  Possibly, since ‘star’ candidates were not a requirement of the Party electoral strategy, recruiting them never became an urgent priority.

A bunker mentality places too much emphasis on loyalty and not enough on talent.  From the perspective of public exposure and contact, Mr. Harper was the most hermetically sealed Prime Minister we have witnessed.  Most governments exhibit a strong bunker mentality towards the end. The Harper Team had it before they came into power.  They went from minority to majority with it.  They went into their final campaign with it even more intact.  For all its virtues, this was not an inclusive government that reached out beyond a small number of safe and comfortable choices. The Government seemed to operate in a series of closed loops.  It is a tribute to Mr. Harper’s smarts and political acumen that this worked as well as it did. But, the Government’s bunker mentality meant reaching fewer Canadian outside their small circle.  That effectively created a thin gene pool in which to find, attract, and recruit talent.  

Cabinets are ultimately a reflection of who the parties attract as activists and members.  At Conservative gatherings it seems the MPs and Candidates are often a good cross-representation of the membership. It also seems their members are or could be your neighbour or someone you do business with in your community. You can over-generalize but the party is largely peopled by members of the middle class who strongly identify with the Conservative values and beliefs. However, ideological purity, being a good neighbour or a successful small business person does not necessarily qualify you to run a government department with a large budget, multiple programs, and thousands of employees.

By contrast, Liberal gatherings skew towards a higher income demographic.  There are more professionals and executives.  They are more ideologically flexible. For good or ill, the party tends to attract more of the ‘strivers’ and ‘climbers’ of society.  This is not surprising since the Party has long mastered the art of ‘elite aggregation’.  This helped them hold power for most of the last century. The party cherry-picked members of the elite; used government programs to leverage the relationship and then used those recruits to bring their organizations, its resources and membership into the tent. It was how the party raised funds when corporate donations mattered. It was how they maintained the support of ethnic communities.  It was how they identified and promoted candidates. 

The incestuous cross-mingling of elites does not have the same societal power in 2016 that it did in in 1965 when John Porter published “The Vertical Mosaic”. Some people believe the Laurentian Elite is having a resurgence but it is mostly a dated concept.  Canada is less provincial and its citizens less deferential.  Power relationships in today’s economy are too fluid. The political class is less institutional and more freelance.  But the Liberals have shown they can still mine the strategy for its residual value. The cabinet talent pool the Liberals elected is impressive; especially for a third party not expected to win a majority.

Elites have one advantage over non-elites.  They have more names in their Rolodexes of people who have run or worked in large organizations or have some public policy expertise. It is just a fact.

That does not suggest imitating the Liberals and starting an active program of elite recruitment would work as well for the Conservatives.

The idea rubs many Conservatives the wrong way.  They resent elites on the well-founded suspicion they take care of themselves better than they take care of the rest of us. Elite backlash, at least, partially explains the crushing of the Progressive Conservatives in 1993 election. There is an anti-intellectual strain in the party which places values far ahead of expertise. The Trump Circus in the US shows the perils for a Conservative party when a significant group of supporters start thinking of the Party establishment as an out-of-touch, corrupted elite.

The Conservative Party will choose a new leader on May 17, 2017. He or she stands a better chance of eventually winning and holding power if surrounded by a strong team that has the skills, experiences and ability to run a government. It will be a major challenge to create that team.

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