Q61. What qualifications does a person need to be a Cabinet minister?

There are no qualifications to be a minister

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A61. Our system of government does not require that a Cabinet minister have any particular qualification for the job.

We have what you might call “civilian control” of government. The policy experts are in the department itself. The minister is expected to exercise political judgment, based on the advice given by the experts, but is not expected to bring any policy expertise of his or her own. This is a strength of our system, not a weakness. It is not fair to criticize a minister for being “unqualified”, because there are no qualifications.

Thus an MLA does not have to be a doctor or nurse to be health minister; or an engineer to be transportation minister; or a teacher to be education minister; or a farmer to be agriculture minister. There was a time when everybody thought the Attorney General had to be a lawyer, but the first non-lawyer Attorney General was appointed in 1993, and we have had many non-lawyers since then, so even that is no longer a requirement.

The choice of cabinet ministers is in the sole discretion of the premier. The premier may choose people based on ability and professional experience, but also (in order to achieve political balance) on geography, gender, ethnicity, religion, age, or seniority. The assignment and re-assignment of Cabinet positions is also in the premier’s sole discretion.

Cabinet ministers are almost always MLAs, because our system of “responsible government” says that cabinet ministers should be able to stand in the legislature and explain what they are doing. A non-MLA is not permitted in the legislature.

Even so, it is possible to have an unelected minister. The last unelected minister in Nova Scotia was Russell MacLellan, who won the Liberal party leadership on July 12, 1997, and was sworn in as premier six days later. He did not become an MLA until he won a by-election in November 1997. Before that, premier Donald Cameron appointed two non-MLAs to his cabinet just prior to the 1993 provincial election. Both were defeated in the election, so their time in cabinet was brief.

Q54. What is a Cabinet shuffle?

A shuffle changes the membership and responsibilities of Cabinet

A54. A Cabinet shuffle is when the premier adds or removes Cabinet ministers, or changes the portfolios for which Cabinet ministers are responsible.

The premier alone decides who will be a Cabinet minister, and what portfolio they hold. It is therefore the premier’s decision about whether to have a Cabinet shuffle and when.

Shuffles happen for all kinds of reasons: the death or resignation of a minister; ministers’ performance (good or bad); to give a backbencher a chance at a Cabinet position; to give the Cabinet a fresh look; or to boost an MLA’s chances of re-election.

Premiers want to present their government in the best light, so they won’t always be completely forthright about their reasons for a shuffle. For example, if the premier believes a minister is under-performing, they don’t usually want to say so out loud.

People who follow politics examine Cabinet shuffles closely for their political meaning. Who’s up? Who’s down? Who’s in favour? Who’s out of favour? Who’s strong? Who’s weak? There can be much speculation, but ultimately only the premier knows for sure the reasons for the shuffle.

If a minister is moved to a less important portfolio, it is sometimes referred to as a demotion. If a minister is moved to a more important portfolio, it is sometimes referred to as a promotion. But of course there can be arguments about which portfolios are more or less important than others. That’s all part of politics.

If a shuffle affects only a few ministers, it is sometimes referred to as a minor shuffle. If a shuffle affects many ministers, or if it includes one of the more prestigious portfolios, it is sometimes referred to as a major shuffle. The Harlem shuffle is a famous song.

A Cabinet shuffle requires a change in the legislature’s seating plan, if a minister is being added or removed, because of the convention that Cabinet ministers sit in the front row on the government side of the House.