Our new premier’s first misstep: a 12-member cabinet is too small

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As Nova Scotia’s new government begins its third week in office, a critical early mistake is coming into focus: Darrell Dexter’s 12-member cabinet is too small for the job at hand.

Cabinet selection inevitably requires consideration of gender, ethnicity, and geography: Women must take a prominent place; there must seats for Cape Breton, northern Nova Scotia, the south shore, and the valley; Metro MLAs must not appear to dominate.

Legitimate political and cultural considerations of this sort do not necessarily trump such factors as experience and merit, but they compete with them. That leads to problems.

Problem 1: By limiting himself to 11 cabinet appointments (not counting himself), Dexter had to exclude some experienced and capable MLAs. Leave aside Howard Epstein, whose controversial persona and edgy relationship with Dexter may explain his exile. Shouldn’t Leonard Preyra, a smart guy with lots of good ideas, have a place in cabinet?  What about Vicki Conrad, Dave Wilson, Gary Burrill?

Problem 2: Several ministers have workloads too heavy for optimal performance.

  • Maureen MacDonald is both minister of illness (Health) and minister of wellness (Health Promotion and Protection), positions that might better have been separated to assure both perspectives a voice in cabinet.
  • Even before the tragic loss that befell him Friday, an apparently ailing Bill Estabrooks was overburdened with Energy atop Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal. TIR is both a technically challenging portfolio and one fraught with time-consuming political considerations. Energy, while not a big department, faces momentous decisions for which the NDP has shown little aptitude or interest.
  • Sterling Belliveau is Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture, and Minister Environment, in that order. Fisheries is a harmless bauble, given that the province has no jurisdiction, but Environment requires politically treacherous decisions — How exactly are we going to close down NSP’s coal-fired plants? Where exactly will we find money for replacements? Who’s going to pony up $1 billion for grid improvements required to expand our use of wind and tidal energy? — for which Dexter has shown no appetite, and Belliveau no knowledge or interest.
  • A senior official at the Department of Natural Resources reports that, in his first two weeks on the job, John MacDonell, whose duties are split between Agriculture and Natural Resources, spent all of a day and a half in the department.

Problem #3: Overburdened ministers have less capacity to exercise political supervision over departments. Combined with the problematic decision not to fire any deputy ministers, the small cabinet increases the risk that civil servants will run the government.

Problem #4: Mishaps occur. No one could have predicted the horrible tragedies that struck Ramona Jennex and Bill Estabrooks so soon after their elevation to cabinet, but a 12-person cabinet leaves little leeway for unforeseen contingencies. Who knows when these ministers will feel up to resuming their full duties, and who would want them to feel the slightest pressure to do so? So for the moment, we are left with a 10-person cabinet.

The cost savings from a small cabinet are trivial. This was but one of several gestures by our cautious new government intended to reassure Nova Scotians that barbarians have not stormed the gates. The refusal to fire potentially partisan deputies is another.

Sometime soon, Premier Dexter will have to move beyond reassurance, and beyond focus group-tested talking points, to show Nova Scotians how he intends to lead them through the many difficult and potentially unpopular decisions that lie ahead.