Brent Rathgeber wants fewer ministers, by law

Independent MP Brent Rathgeber will table a bill to limit federal governments to 26 ministers

REUTERS/Chris Wattie

REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Later this week, Independent MP Brent Rathgeber will table a private member’s bill to cap the number of federal ministers.

Official notice of Rathgeber’s bill was given this evening, but I noted Rathgeber’s intent when I wrote about Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s newly enlarged cabinet in January. As I wrote then, the British Parliament has passed a law that limits the number of individuals who can receive ministerial salaries. Rathgeber’s bill aims, in part, to do the same: It would amend the Ministries and Ministries of State Act to specify that only 26 ministers can be appointed, and it would amend the Salaries Act to mandate that only 26 ministers can receive a ministerial stipend.

Rathgeber has no chance of seeing his bill passed before the House adjourns in a couple months, but it’s an interesting point for debate, and perhaps an idea of future reform. It might also be fun to hear someone try to justify another 14 ministers. (It was actually a point of pride when the Conservatives introduced a reduced number ministers in 2006.)

Rathgeber’s bill would effectively reverse decades of ministerial multiplication. Reducing the ministerial head count to 26 would get us back to the number of ministers that Lester B. Pearson’s government had from 1964 through 1966. As a share of the House of Commons, the Harper government’s 40 ministers currently account for 12.98 per cent of all MPs. Twenty-six ministers in the current House would be just 8.44 per cent of MPs. Twenty-six ministers in the next Parliament, with the addition of 30 MPs, would get that ratio down to 7.69 per cent, about where it was when John A. Macdonald and Wilfrid Laurier were choosing ministers.

But this is not quite simply a small gesture toward smaller government.

“The real purpose of the concept [is] to force a rebalance between the executive and the legislative branches,” Rathgeber says. “With the House expanding to 338, making cabinet smaller reduces the probability that any [or] every MP will make it into the executive. I want legislators to take this job seriously and come here for purposes other than auditioning for a role in this or some future cabinet. So, mathematically alone, this bill would start a rebalance. Over time, hopefully, an attitudinal adjustment would follow. Regardless, PMs would be statutorily prevented from appointing grossly oversized cabinets, simply to promote party discipline and his control over caucus.”

In addition to those 40 ministers, the Harper government also currently has 30 parliamentary secretaries, 70 MPs who are in the employ of the government. If 26 ministers were accompanied by 26 parliamentary secretaries, that number would obviously go down to 52.

In practice, it seems to me, this means 18 more MPs who would be harder to whip. (Never mind for the moment how much other influence the government currently has over committee assignments and such.) But reducing the number of ministers also goes to one of the theories explaining why party discipline is looser in the U.K. Parliament. With 650 MPs, members are less likely to receive one of the government’s appointed spots. With longer odds of getting an appointment, the incentives are different and MPs are more likely to decide to do something other than chase a ministerial post.

There are, of course, any number of other changes that might be made to invigorate the House of Commons, but there’s something to be said for simple numbers. Take some number of MPs away from the government and give them to the House and maybe that improves the odds of us getting a vital and assertive legislature.

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