Initial Thoughts on Yesterday’s Cabinet Shuffle

We here in Canada had quite a major cabinet shuffle yesterday, precipitated in part due to the departure of a few major cabinet ministers. So, the five positions with the most sciency-ness are now held by:

  • Minister of State for Science and Technology: Greg Rickford (Kenora) replaces Gary Goodyear (Cambridge)
  • Minister of the Environment: Leona Aglukkaq (Nunavut) replaces Peter Kent (Thornhill)
  • Minister of Fisheries and Oceans: Gail Shea (Egmont) replaces Keith Ashfield (Fredericton)
  • Minister of Natural Resources: Joe Oliver (Eglington-Lawrence) remains in the position
  • Minister of Health: Rona Ambrose (Edmonton-Spruce Grove) replaces Leona Aglukkaq (Nunavut)

Let’s go one by one. I’m pleased that Goodyear is gone, because having a science minister who dances around the question of whether or not he believes in evolution is frankly embarrassing. Rickford has worked previously as a nurse (though his law degrees are more emphasized in the bios I’ve seen), which is a step in the right direction. But he’s the MP for Kenora, the riding of the Experimental Lakes Area, and he was previously a vocal proponent for closing the site. So, we’re not exactly off to a flying start.

Based on her previous role as Minister of Health, I’m not convinced that Leona Aglukkaq has the chutzpah necessary for her new portfolio. Environment is a portfolio that can easily be trampled over by many other portfolios (industry, natural resources, finance, etc) in the name of economic progress, perhaps moreso than other portfolios, and to my mind, the mark of a strong environment minister is someone who’ll go to bat for their portfolio (and, by extension, the environment). Peter Kent was spectacularly bad at this, not just passively letting other interests take precedent, but actively hindering efforts at making Canada a more sustainable, environmentally sound nation. I’m not saying that all ministers must be world experts at all aspects of their portfolio, but I think it does behoove them to get at least a working knowledge of the major aspects of their portfolio. It’s easy to snipe at Kent about not knowing what ozone is, but it belies a lack of knowledge about one of the major components of the environment, and the ozone question/lack of answer came up almost a year after he’d been appointed Minister of the Environment. It’s not like he’d just gotten the portfolio and hadn’t had time to get up to speed on it. So given all that, I’m guessing Aglukkaq will be a step up — but I’m worried that the department will continue to be chipped away and slowly dismantled, as she won’t effectively stick up for it when budget time comes around.

Fisheries and Oceans is one of those departments that I wish got more coverage than it does. We’re surrounded by three oceans, have an *enormous* ocean coastline, and yet don’t seem to give much of a hoot about marine science. The fisheries end gets more press than the ocean end, since that’s got a more obvious economic impact, but I feel I have a spectacular lack of data to form any reasonable opinion on the Gail Shea of Keith Ashford. Maybe it’s an issue on the deparmtent’s end, maybe it’s an issue on the press’s end, and most likely there’s a combination of factors that leads to DFO rarely making the news. Whichever way it goes, I’ll try and keep a better on eye out for press on Fisheries and Oceans.

Natural resources (which has a predominantly economic mandate rather than a scientific or conservationist one) is currently steam rollering all over the Ministry of the Environment, and since Joe Oliver is staying on, I suspect that’ll continue unabated.

And lastly, Rona Ambrose takes over Health. Whoever is here will likely helm the negotiations for the federal-provincial health accord next year, which sets the funding structure for provincial health care programs for the next (I believe) ten years. Health Council Canada is an independent committee that has overseen the implementation of these accords in the past; its funding was eliminated earlier this year, and it will close likely just before the new health accord is negotiated. (Convenient timing!) I’m decidedly not thrilled about her appointment, considering her voting record while she was Minister responsible for Status of Women. She seems to actually espouse a lot of the farther right policy measures put forward by the government (rather than just toeing the party line), and while I admit that that’s gut feeling and speculation, I’m not happy about the idea of her helming negotiations to fund socialized health care.

A sort of secondary (or at least a more chronic issue than a Thing That Needs Attending To Immediately) is the continual lack of MPs with strong science backgrounds. Laywers and bankers and business folk of all stripes are a dime a dozen in Parliament, but doctors are rare, and scientists and engineers are even rarer. This isn’t to say that a laywer cannot be an excellent Minister of State for Science and Technology, but an MP with a more direct background in science — whether that’s industrial science, academic science, theoretical or applied science — will bring a more relevant perspective to the portfolio. Having worked as a scientist will likely give a Minister of Science a more tangible view of how policy set forth by their portfolio affects Canadian science, scientists, and citizens than a working as an attorney would, and I think that perspective is important.

So, in short (ha!), things’ve shuffled around a bit on the science end of cabinet, but there’s not to really cheer for. On the other hand, I spent my bus ride home trying to think who among the current slate of Conservative MPs I would actually want in any of those five positions, and…… I drew a huge blank. There’s no-one that I’d pick out and say “aha! You would make an excellent Minister of the Environment!” on the CPC caucus. There may well be people who’d do an excellent job in some of the roles (or would were they not severely hampered by their own party’s machinations), but none come to mind. I’m curious — who would you want to see in these positions? Who’m I forgetting or overlooking?

3 responses to “Initial Thoughts on Yesterday’s Cabinet Shuffle

  1. Thanks – that’s a more comprehensive summary than I could ever be bothered to put together in the July heat!

    Looking at Greg Rickford’s bio, he looks like he would have been a good pick for Aboriginal Affairs, since that is where much of his experience lies. Gail Shea was Minister of fisheries in the 2008-2011 government. Being the lone MP from PEI (still the only non-Liberal elected from there in a quarter-century), she gets a Cabinet post pretty much by default, so may as well put the MP whose province is most reliant on fisheries in charge of that portfolio. Her big moment in the news was when she had a pie thrown in her face by a PETA supporter at an event, as a protest against the seal hunt.

    Your comment about a lack of scientists in Parliament is true, but let’s face it, politics isn’t in the blood of many scientists. I don’t know if that will change anytime soon – I think many scientists, of all political persuasions, feel that they can accomplish more in their community instead of in Ottawa. That’s certainly how I feel right now… That said. there are a few scientists/engineers in the Conservative caucus – Brad Trost has a degree in geophysics, Robert Sopuck has an MSc from Cornell (he is listed as a “biologist”), Steven Blaney is a civil engineer. Joe Daniel and Corneliu Chisu are both listed as having Masters in engineering. And if you consider medical providers as scientists, there is also Harold Albrecht (dentist) and Kellie Leitch (orthopaedic surgeon). I don’t know if any of them were considered for these portfolios, and some of them may have seen the position as a poisoned chalice at this time.

    And besides, the science portfolio has never been a high priority – can you name any of the Secretaries of State for Science under Chr├ętien or Martin? (Trick question – Paul Martin scrapped that position when he became Prime Minister.) Look at the science critics for the other parties – the NDP has a biologist and an engineer in caucus, but they have a political scientist (Kennedy Stewart) as their science critic. The Liberals have a real, living, breathing astronaut in their ranks… and they put a lawyer (well, David McGuinty is an environmental lawyer) on the science portfolio. The science portfolio strikes me as one given to an MP who needs a title, versus an MP who actually cares about science.

  2. Pingback: Does the new Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Rickford really need research experience? « FrogHeart

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