Speaking with fewer tongues

Stewart MacLeod August 24 1987

Speaking with fewer tongues

Stewart MacLeod August 24 1987

Speaking with fewer tongues


Stewart MacLeod

Okay, you’re Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, you’re wallowing at the bottom of the opinion polls, nothing your government does seems to win favor, and within 18 months or so you have an appointment with the voters. You’ve tried everything—sometimes even both sides of everything— and the pollsters tell you it’s all been in vain.

They say there’s a problem in the area of trust, that you haven’t quite lived up to expectations. Is it because what you preached and practised in, say, the field of patronage seems worlds apart? Is it because the Access to Information Act has made a public spectacle of your cabinet’s spending habits? Could it be because people still resent the way you hired all your friends? Or perhaps it’s because you fired them. Or is it that damned shoe closet at 24 Sussex Drive?

Could be anything. But if you’re going to win the next election, there must be immediate and drastic action. So here, with no charge, is a politically charming idea to not only stun Canadians but also solve your self-proclaimed problem of not getting your message across. First, ask yourself how you expect 40 cabinet ministers—there’s one vacancy at the moment—some ordained to be faceless, to possibly transmit a coherent message.

Right, now spend a weekend at your Harrington Lake cottage alone—children are a terrible distraction—with a list of cabinet ministers, some of whom may not be too familiar to you, and be prepared for some serious doodling. Start by asking yourself who among the 40 you need the least, then run a pencil through the name. Now, go on to the second-least-missed, then the third, fourth, etc.

When you get down to about 20, look at how they reflect such all-Canadian concerns as race, region and religion— perhaps it will be necessary to compromise on a few choices. Barrel back to Ottawa, call a news conference to announce another incidental aid package and, near the end of proceedings, casually mention that you’re cutting your cabinet in half.

No talk about how many jobs your government has created, or how well you get along with Ronald Reagan, or

Stewart MacLeod is Ottawa columnist for Thomson News Service.

what a financial mess you inherited from the gooey Grits. And whatever you do, don’t utter your own name, as in “When Brian Mulroney promises . . . .” Play it low-key, businesslike and modest. Yes, acknowledge that you took a few years to realize it, but that a 40-member cabinet for a country of 25 million is, for lack of a better word, stupid.

Sure, there will be 20 former ministers somewhat cheesed off, but what’s 20 compared with a couple of million applauding voters?

No, of course we’re not kidding.

Naturally, the announcement will bring on a barrage of questions, but you will have the answers snug in your left pocket, where you normally keep the job-creation figures. And to make yourself feel more comfortable, start off by lobbing a shot at former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who fattened his ministry up to an inexcusable 37.

Brian Mulroney is wallowing at the bottom of the opinion polls. There must be immediate and drastic action

Forget about John Turner, who, during his long weekend in office, cut it back to a more respectable 29. Just touch the important bases.

Tell the motley media you took a look at Britain, where they don’t even have provinces to look after education, highways, etc., and where there are usually only 20 ministers in cabinet. Sure, there are junior ministers with special responsibilities, but they don’t clutter up cabinet meetings unless specifically invited. More like our parliamentary secretaries.

Go on to mention the United States where, if our minister-to-population ratio were copied, there would be 400 members of cabinet. As it is, the Americans run the world with a 16member cabinet.

And, oh yes, go back to the 1940s and marvel at how we mounted our entire war effort and the postwar boom with about 20 cabinet ministers. John Diefenbaker, even with his enormous 208-member caucus to placate, managed to get by with 21 ministers.

He didn’t get by for very long, of

course, but that’s another story.

By all means blame the Grits. The Pearson government started the big buildup, quickly growing to 26, and it was Trudeau who finished it off. Toss in the news that by eliminating 20 ministerial salaries—about $45,000 above an ordinary MP’s—there is an immediate saving of $900,000. Then there are the parliamentary secretaries to the ministers, drawing an extra $9,500, who would automatically go down the tube as well. Now take a page out of Trudeau’s playbook and, instead of defending the initiative, turn the tables and ask the reporters some snarky questions. Like, “When we have such a huge department of national health and welfare, didn’t you people ever ask why we needed a separate minister for fitness? And when we have a department dedicated to industrial expansion, which changes names every full moon, why do we need a minister for small business? And a minister for external affairs and another for external relations? Come on. We not only have a minister of energy, mines and resources, there is a separate minister for forestry and mines. Did we have to split the Canadian Wheat Board from Agriculture? My list also shows that what’s-hisname is minister for youth, for heaven’s sake. And two ministers for immigration?”

Look disgusted here, or else crack a joke about having one immigration minister for airports and another for night boat arrivals. Shake your head a few times, it’s good TV.

Be sure to say something beautiful about our ethnic communities, but then proclaim that it was inexcusable politicking for the Trudeau government to establish a ministry of multiculturalism, even though, like tourism, it doesn’t have an exclusive minister. Anyway, out they go, along with every junior and associate minister. And whatever you do, don’t appoint any fired ministers to plum diplomatic posts. That would undo everything.

Now that you’ve got the cabinet pared to operational proportions, you’ll be able to hold weekly meetings with all 20—imagine, just like the good old days when every member actually knew what was going on in government. And in time, the public may start to recognize individual ministers, perhaps even listen to them.

Allan Fotheringham is on vacation.