Advice for Cabinet Newbies

By Robert Presser on October 28, 2015

Congrats, you got the call!  Whether you are an experienced parliamentarian or part of the new wave of government MPs, being asked by the PM to sit in cabinet is a transformational experience in the life of a politician.  Your success or failure is dependent on much more than just your intelligence, wit and talents.  Here are a few things to consider as you prepare to walk into Rideau Hall on November 4th:

You are one of a select club of thirty or so cabinet ministers, but there are another 150 members of the Liberal caucus who are not in cabinet and probably a majority of them would have liked to be in your place.  You are still a member of caucus, and these other Liberals are still your colleagues.  There are some elements of discussions around the cabinet table that will never be shared with the broader caucus, so discretion is in order – that’s why they call it cabinet solidarity and secrecy.  On certain issues you may be called upon to sell a cabinet decision within the party while other cabinet members are charged with explaining it to the media and to the public. Maintaining relationships within the caucus and party will be essential to your longevity in cabinet.  A PM contemplating a cabinet shuffle in 18 months’ time will be more likely to keep an average-performing minister who is appreciated within the party over one who performs will in a non-critical portfolio but causes friction within cabinet and caucus.  You will need to manage relationships up, down and sideways to secure your place through the ups and downs of a new government’s mandate.

Choose your chief of staff and supporting staff very carefully.  If you are in a major portfolio like finance, trade, foreign affairs and public security it is likely that the Prime Minister’s Office already has a chief of staff in mind for you, likely a senior political operative who has seen service in previous Liberal governments or for one of the previous 35 Liberal MPs.  If you are a returning MP and your chief had a good reputation on the hill, you may be in the strange position of seeing your most trusted staff member given over to another office where their skills are more critically required.  Experienced staff is going to be in short supply since your party only had 35 MPs previously and you have been out of power for nearly ten years, so you should expect to lose some of your best people.  Be a sport and give them up with grace, the PM will recognize the good job you did cultivating them during the opposition years.

If you are a newly-elected MP and you are suddenly thrust into cabinet, and the PM’s office does not have staff recommendations for you, boy, are you alone in the rowboat!  You may have to draw from the political consulting firms where many old Liberals went to wait out the Tory years, but bear in mind that the vetting process will have to be vigorous due to the new conflict of interest guidelines that were put in place since the sponsorship scandal. For example, if you are the Natural Resources minister, don’t go recruit a chief of staff who was lobbying on behalf of the oil producers or pipeline companies, the rules probably won’t allow it and even if s/he passes those, the optics would be terrible.  Better an experienced Ottawa operative from an unrelated field than someone too close to your portfolio in their private-sector life.  One caveat; if the PMO gives you your chief of staff, their first allegiance is to the PMO, at least in the beginning.  Best to work in building a relationship before you start confiding too much in your new chief of staff.  Also, campaign staffers who want to come to Ottawa better have skills to match their enthusiasm, otherwise leave them at home and recruit competence over familiarity.  Goodwill will not save you, experience and good judgement will.

If you are recruiting for a riding office for the first time, fill it with locals who know all the municipal players in your riding and can keep you connected with all the community’s social and cultural groups.  Your riding office is your public face to the people who elected you, and if all the old staff is gone, or if you are taking over from another party, at least try to get a hold of the critical files and arrange a briefing before the partisans from the old guard shred everything.  If you can negotiate a friendly handover of the riding office files you are already 80% ahead.

There is one final group who will be there the moment you walk into the door of your new portfolio office – the civil service.  At least at the start, the deputy minister and the team of associate deputy ministers will be holdovers from the previous government and will have been working feverishly over the past few weeks to prepare briefing papers for you to bring you up to speed.  If you are lucky, you will have a departmental staff that genuinely wants to support you and see you succeed in the portfolio.  If not, the quality of the advice and guidance you receive may lead to you under-performing and may even produce rookie mini-crises early in your tenure.  Never, ever speculate about your political future, or your longevity in the current portfolio in front of your departmental staff.  You must, at all times, display an energetic willingness to engage on all the critical issues and that you are in the minister’s chair for the long term.  If you give the impression that you are just passing through on your way to a portfolio with greater prestige then you will dishearten your departmental staff and there will be little incentive on their side to make you look good and bring innovative ideas from your portfolio to the cabinet table – they will save those for the next occupant who will take the job more seriously.

As you can see, there is a lot to think about and you have a very short time to sort this all out.  With so many new people in government, there will be some early missteps for sure, but hopefully the public goodwill is enough to carry you through this adjustment period.  Listen carefully to those around you, and understand the biases they bring when they give you advice, because no one has purely your best interests in mind.  Oh, and don’t be afraid of your other new cabinet members, no matter what image they project publicly they are going through exactly the same thing you are. However, don’t be too quick to confide your problems on your side.  After all, knowing when to be quiet is a critical skill in politics.  Good luck, we’ll be watching!

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