On Wednesday, our 23rd Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, unveiled his new cabinet. Of the 30 Liberal MPs sworn in as ministers this week (not including Prime Minister Trudeau, who is the 31st member of his cabinet), 15 are women. Which means that if you take the PM out of the equation, our new cabinet is the first in Canadian history to have equal numbers of men and women.
When asked by a reporter why gender parity in the cabinet was important to him, Prime Minister Trudeau simply replied, “Because it’s 2015.”
This is a short remark, somewhat flippant but certainly final (what the kids these days refer to as “dropping the mic”), but it is very important. By refusing to discuss his decision, the Prime Minister of Canada has told us, essentially, that the necessity of a balance of representation that reflects the true gender demographics of the Canadian people is not up for discussion (note: I am aware than no transgender individuals were named to the cabinet, but I am not sure if there are actually any Liberal MPs who are trans* at this time). I agree wholeheartedly–my right as a female Canadian to be just as represented in the federal cabinet as my male counterparts is non-negotiable–however, there are two things I want to say about this historic decision.
THING ONE: For a prime minister to intentionally select members of his/her cabinet in order to achieve a specific kind of demographic representation or to achieve any other kind of symbolic or political aim is not unusual. It happens all the time, for a variety of reasons, including:
Regional balance: any smart prime minister, especially one that has just made gains in regions that are not usually considered their party’s base, would do well to make sure these new regions feel that they have a voice at the table, and that their support is not taken for granted (prime ministers who have just planted their flag in Alberta, for example, need to make damn sure at least one of their cabinet ministers is from Alberta). Canada is a BIG country, and one that, historically, has centered power in Ontario and Quebec. Recent re-distributions of federal ridings have, at long last, shifted some of this political power into different parts of the country, for example, to the Prairies and the West Coast. Only a PM who was arrogant or stupid (or both) would continue to ignore provinces and territories outside of central Canada and leave themselves vulnerable to the charge that “Ottawa doesn’t care about the rest of us.”
Trudeau, contrary to popular belief, has been neither arrogant nor stupid in his cabinet decisions–in addition to achieving gender parity, he has also selected for regional representation. Yes, most of the ministers are still from Quebec and Ontario (these two provinces are still home to the majority of Canadians), but his cabinet includes MPs from every Canadian province and one from the territories. It isn’t about choosing the “best” thirty MPs necessarily, it’s about choosing the best complement of thirty MPs to best represent the people who just voted for you. Selecting for region is no more arbitrary than selecting for gender.
Fresh faces: while of course it’s important to have a healthy supply of experienced veterans (like Ralph Goodale, our new minister of public safety) in cabinet positions, people do get tired of seeing the same old seasoned politicians running the show. Appointing newer MPs to cabinet positions sends the message that the government is interested in more than “business as usual”, that they are open to fresh perspectives and new ideas. For a new prime minister like Trudeau, who ran on a platform of “Real Change”, putting new MPs in cabinet is an absolute necessity. Experienced MPs provide a sense of competence and stability (which is why there are some party veterans in the mix), but Trudeau wasn’t running on the Liberal Party’s past record–in many ways, he was running from it. His entire election campaign strategy revolved around showing Canadians that his Liberal Party was not the Liberal Party of his father, was not the Liberal Party of the sponsorship scandal, and was not the boat-adrift-at-sea mess we saw under Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. In order to prove you are the party of “Real Change” you have to make some real, well, changes. Which means some star MPs have found themselves outside of cabinet, despite their experience and merits. Which is, again, not unusual. [Side note: Despite his bumbling in 2008, I personally would not guffaw at Dion’s appointment to minister of foreign affairs–you do want someone with experience in that position and though he was a bit of a dud as a party leader Dion has been a cabinet minister twice before and has been a good MP for his riding for almost 20 years.]
What I’m saying is this: with so many MPs, both experienced and brand new, to choose from, cabinet decisions made within any kind of gender-based, regional, multi-cultural, or symbolic parameters are going to appear either arbitrary, or calculated for specific effect (which they are). But this is nothing new–this is politics.
THING TWO: For a prime minister to intentionally select members of his/her cabinet in order to achieve a specific kind of demographic representation or to achieve any other kind of symbolic or political aim is not unfair.
Of course, as soon as there is so much as a whiff of “affirmative action” on the breeze, folks who have never cared about federal cabinet a day in their lives suddenly come out of the woodwork to denounce selecting MPs based on “what’s between their legs” rather than “merit” as unfair.
Firstly, these charges are deeply offensive–there is so much more to being a woman than “what’s between our legs” (and remember that not all women have vaginas, and not all men have penises). The act of being a woman or being a man involves some physiological/biological aspects, yes, but is also a complex kaleidoscope of structures, pressures, and experiences–social, economic, structural, political, sexual, historical, etc. Why is it that the male MPs appointed to cabinet are considered to have experience and education and “merit”, but the female MPs just have vaginas?
These denunciations also demonstrate a misunderstanding of how Canadian politics works (see Thing One). Every single candidate who runs in Canada (with the exception of the leader of a party) is running to be a Member of Parliament–nothing more. Becoming an MP does not mean you will be part of the government, and becoming a government MP does not mean you will be in cabinet. ‘Member of Parliament’ is the ONLY job candidates are being elected for–there is no guarantee of a cabinet position, because MPs are not elected to cabinet, they are appointed. No MP, no matter their experience or gender or other background, has any constitutional reason to expect to become a cabinet minister. It just doesn’t work that way.
“But,” some say, “gender-based appointments are unfair to all those male MPs who got passed up for cabinet posts because they were men. Even though they had more merit.”
The claim of having “more merit” is a dubious one, generally, and hard to defend. “Merit” is not quantifiable in government, nor is it objective. MPs do not have “merit points” assigned based on some kind of impartial rubric that can be totted up to determine who is the more meritorious. Our ideas of merit are based on certain qualities we find important, and they are completely subjective–a quality you might find indicative of merit may not be at all important to me.
You might say that there are some qualities which we can surely all agree are indicative of an MP’s merit–experience, for example, intellect, or education. These qualities are generally wonderful, and I bet they sure do help an MP do a good job, but if the last election has taught us anything, it’s that we actually don’t care about them as much as we do about personality, trust, and charisma. If we did, Justin Trudeau, who has no political experience prior to 2008, and holds no university degree above the undergraduate level, would not be prime minister. If we really cared about “merit”, our prime minister would probably be Elizabeth May, who has a degree in law, has written seven books, was voted Maclean’s Magazine‘s “Parliamentarian of the Year” in 2012 and “Best Orator” in 2014, has never really pissed anyone off, and was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2005. She is one of the hardest-working MPs on Parliament Hill and yet she remains the leader of a one-person party, with only a tiny fraction of the political power of the House. Fair? Maybe not, but I haven’t heard these same “fairness and merit” people cry too much about it.
Besides, we cannot assume that the women on Trudeau’s cabinet are not the best for the job. Yes, they are women, and yes, including a certain number of women was intentional, but with no quantifiable way to compare “merit” we cannot say that any of these women displaced a more deserving man–in fact, since 50% of the cabinet appointments are intentionally male, we could make the claim that one or more of these men displaced a more deserving woman. “Maleness” is not a default quality of being a cabinet minister, nor it is an indicator of being deserving.
Either way, it’s really a moot point, because cabinet appointments are not about who “deserves” it more–it’s about who will do a good job on their file, who will be an asset rather than a liability in Question Period and media scrums, and who will truly be able to speak for Canadians, rather than speaking to them. Cabinet appointments are not rewards for being a great dude.
Some have suggested that because women make up only 27% of the Liberal caucus (and 26% of total MPs in the House of Commons), it is unfair for them to make up more than 27% of the Liberal cabinet. But this suggestion ignores the distinction between the elected House (or caucus) and the appointed cabinet. The Members of Parliament who sit in the House of Commons are responsible for representing the people who voted for them, i.e., their constituents. No male MP’s power to do this has been curtailed by gender parity in cabinet in any way. Before being enacted, all bills and budgets will be put to a vote in the House of Commons, as usual, and if women make up 26% of the House those female MPs will make up 26% of the vote (we cannot assume, of course, that all of the women in the House will vote the same way simply by virtue of their being women, which would be a frankly ridiculous assumption). The House of Commons (as much as it can in a first-past-the-post system) represents the electoral will of Canadians. This is unchanged.
But the Government of Canada, including its ministries as represented by the cabinet appointees, is not the same as the House. The capital-G Government is responsible for representing ALL Canadians, not just the Canadians who voted for them, not just the Canadians who vote, and not just the Canadians who are eligible to vote. According to Stats Canada, women make up 50.4% of the Canadian population. Why shouldn’t that be reflected in the Canadian cabinet? This still leaves the 49.6% of male Canadians fully represented (actually, more than fully represented since the prime minister makes 16 male members to his cabinet’s 15 female members). So when people say a 50-50 gender split in cabinet is unfair, I wonder, unfair to whom?
I’m tired of a definition of “fair” that says that 50% of the population should get 75% of the Cabinet Pie, and the other 50% should only get 25%, and that it’s fair that which piece of pie you get depends entirely on what’s between your legs. I’m tired of hearing that it’s only “fair” when men have more than women. I’m tired of the assumption that if all rewards were linked only to merit, women wouldn’t have as much or more than men. These definitions and assumptions are offensive, divorced from reality, and seriously outdated.
As the prime minister says, “It’s 2015.”