Better fewer but better

A smaller cabinet would be a potent political symbol

Joe Biden runs the United States government with a cabinet of 15 men and women.

Why does Andrew Furey need 14 to run Newfoundland and Labrador?

He doesn’t.

Andrew Furey could easily run the province with a cabinet of a dozen men and women.  Others have. Furey might even be able to do it with fewer.  Maybe 10.

To be sure, dropping two cabinet ministers would not make a scratch on the thick hide of debt the people of Newfoundland and Labrador are dragging around behind them every day.  Chucking two ministers out of cabinet would just ping off the massive steel ball of the government’s deficit, nothing else.  

The thing is if Andrew Furey is even the tiniest bit serious about the need for bold action to “change the trajectory of Newfoundland and Labrador,” he can start by reducing the size of his cabinet by *at least* two chairs. He could collapse departments together without denying residents of the province the services they need.

While Furey insists this isn’t the time to start tackling the deficit and debt, Furey could use the opportunity he has to make fundamental changes in how government works that wouldn’t involve much change in spending. 

The only way we can successfully change the cost of government is to change what government does.  Well, we can start the work now even if we don’t actually lop anything off spending for another year or two. We need to get rid of things government doesn’t need to do and deliver services people need from government in a new way.

So, let’s find some ways to get the ball rolling now.  

Even if Furey takes a pass on change this week - as everyone should expect - cutting the size of cabinet would be meaningful.  People need some sign from the young Premier that he intends to do something besides posing with Seamus O’Regan for Kennedy-like ego shots or reading frothy words someone wrote for him and shoved in his TelePrompTer. 

For his own political sake, Furey needs to put *some* action behind his words, just to tell people he is serious.

While it wouldn’t mean anything practically to the deficit, reducing the size of Furey’s cabinet by two members would be very hard for him politically.  After all, he has two people just elected who are cabinet material.  Even if Furey holds off on John Abbott until after the official recount is in, there are others in his caucus Furey might like to put in cabinet. Just adding them would mean sending a couple of people to the back benches even though they’ve done nothing wrong.

That’s politically tough, which is why political watchers expect Furey to make his cabinet larger than it is. Politically it is easier to add, especially in light of the disastrous election just finished.

That’s why cutting cabinet would be so meaningful. If Furey does nothing else, he could set the tone for the next four years by tackling the province’s problems with fresh faces, a new organization, and a smaller cabinet. He could make a tough decision.

Problem is, Furey’s shown no inkling he can make tough decisions. People aren’t expecting much from him. And that’s why reducing the size of his cabinet is precisely what Furey ought to do.

Just to give an idea of what Furey could accomplish, consider this re-organization of cabinet to 10 members, not including Furey.  That’s three fewer than he has right now. Some of the restructuring would involve undoing the measly changes he made last August.  That’s okay.  The changes he made – like the mess of a department he gave to Andrew Parsons – don’t make much sense anyway.  The ones outlined below, by contrast, have a policy logic behind them. They tie government organization to specific goals.

Let’s take them alphabetically, starting with a new department called Communities, Culture, and Immigration

Change Women’s Policy to Women and Gender Equality, a name that reflects where society already is.  Get the office out of the backrooms as a secretariat where it has always been. Add Indigenous Affairs.  Add in municipal affairs, parts of other departments responsible for culture, as well as a new focus on immigrants and immigration. 

This department combines the three elements that will be the foundation of the new Newfoundland and Labrador. That’s something this department and its new minister could help the rest of us to shape.

A new future for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will only come from a strong, united people who share common goals for themselves collectively and individually. We need to address all the things that hold people back in our province now. We have deep-seated racial issues to tackle. And we need to provide a welcoming home for immigrants. This department would be crucial in reaching those goals.

Education wouldn’t change much, nor would Environment and Conservation. The latter would just emphasize that government is aligned with what the public wants in its new Newfoundland and Labrador.

Finance and Government Standards would redefine the old department called Finance and Treasury Board.  The new department would do more than handle money.  It would also set internal government standards for communications, hiring, records management, and disclosure by incorporating units like the Chief Information Officer and Access to Information. 

Give the minister a mandate to modernize government’s internal workings like the dismally antiquated - and increasingly costly -- way government does things like record vaccinations or its hideous practice of uncommunication.  Better management of services used by all departments would also improve the quality of work life for the people involved.

This is also the department that would get the job of bringing government’s online presence into the new century 20 years late.

Health is a big enough department on its own. It’s already getting a double dose of expert re-organization. Let it focus on acute care.

Natural Resources would combine mines and energy with fisheries, forestry, and agriculture, as it did before 1949.  All the province’s major resource industries would fall under one department focused on properly regulating them.

Public Safety and Attorney General is a traditional organization of government’s legal and justice services. There are plenty of issues in the police services in the province to keep a new minister busy.

Social Care would combine children and family services, community health services, and income support programs.  Add long-term care. The new department would focus on the social determinants of health and provide lifelong care to people who need it most, every day.

Innovation and the Labour Force would bring together economic development with labour standards, workplace health and safety, and employment-related training.  The new department would better support the private sector as the new engine of future growth and prosperity.

A key part of a bold new policy would get government out of the business of running and propping up businesses. Government should create the space in which the private sector can create economically and environmentally sustainable jobs. Together with Natural Resources and Environment and Conservation, Innovation and the Labour Force would create that fertile space.

Transportation and Government Services would bring together public services ranging from roads and ferries to procurement and capital works.  There’s a reason why these things have been hooked together for decades, successfully.

That’s what bold change could look like.

So what will we see on Thursday?