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POSTED AT 1:01 AM EDT ON 21/07/04

Jeffrey Simpson

Not exactly a brave new cabinet

Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Where did all the women go in Paul Martin's cabinet? There were 11 before the election, but only nine became ministers yesterday in a cabinet of 39.

Five women got minor portfolios: three ministries of state, foreign aid and veterans affairs. Women now hold only four key posts. That's paltry for a party whose voting support is stronger among female voters than male ones.

Mr. Martin's world is a clubby one. The vast majority of his senior staff members are men. So now are his cabinet members.

Cabinet-making is always hard. A prime minister has to balance regional, linguistic, ethnic and gender considerations. But appointing only nine women in a cabinet of 39 is insulting to half the population, to say nothing of the women in the Liberal Party and caucus.

Think back to Carolyn Bennett's outburst against Jean Chrétien. Then a backbencher from Toronto — she's now Minister of State for Public Health — she grumbled that only 10 of 38 cabinet ministers were women. Now there are nine. What does Ms. Bennett say now?

The cabinet, one supposes, reflects the struggle that women face in public life. It's harder for many of them to juggle responsibilities, harder therefore to make the decision to attempt the vagaries of politics, harder apparently to win nominations and, if this and previous cabinets are any test, harder to move up the greasy cabinet pole.

Yes, the Liberals lost their majority under Mr. Martin. So he had fewer MPs from which to choose a cabinet. But instead of promoting competent women such as Ontarians Sue Barnes, Karen Redmond (she became whip) and Paddy Tornsey, Manitoban Anita Neville or Quebecker Marlene Jennings — or taking a chance on such newcomers as Ruby Dhalla, Yasmin Ratansi, Susan Kadis or Françoise Boivin — Mr. Martin promoted some of his faithful cronies from the leadership wars such as Joe Fontana and Tony Ianno.

The West, it is said, emerged favourably in the new cabinet with eight ministers, five from British Columbia. Quebec, too, received eight portfolios. But Ontario, with 16 ministers, dwarfed these regions, a payback for that province having rescued the Martin Liberals in the final days of the campaign.

In Quebec, every minister comes from Montreal. That means no representation in cabinet for the rest of Quebec. And that means the Bloc Québécois will have uncontested sway over the whole province beyond Montreal, very bad news for Canadian federalism that is now under siege courtesy of the unpopularity of federalist governments in Quebec City and Ottawa.

Regional considerations aside, you'd almost think the Liberals had scored a resounding victory. Mind you, this is how the Martinites have apparently interpreted their entire time in office: a brilliant series of tactical decisions that produced a surprising victory against serious odds. Believe it, if you want.

There are four important new arrivals: Nova Scotian Scott Brison ( recruited from the Conservatives), Torontonian Ken Dryden and British Columbians David Emerson and Ujjal Dosanjh. They all got key posts, and so represent fresh energy injected into the government.

The rest of the cabinet, however, is largely the one that entered the election, minus, of course, the ministers who lost their seats. The country seemed at best mildly unimpressed and at worst infuriated with the previous Martin government. It's hard to see how the same team, slightly modified, will impress them more.

Were there "winners" in the shuffle, apart from the four key newcomers? Pierre Pettigrew had wanted Foreign Affairs for years, and got it. So he won't be around for the health-care negotiations where his truthful but politically inexpedient statement about the Canada Health Act permitting private delivery of services might have proved awkward.

And from the political dead arose Stéphane Dion, appointed Environment Minister but previously banished as an unreconstructed Chrétienite and godfather of the Clarity Bill derided by Mr. Martin's new Quebec lieutenant, Jean Lapierre. Mr. Lapierre, like the whole Martin approach, bombed in Quebec. Mr. Dion, frozen-faced during the cabinet ceremony, must have been smiling inside.

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