Who has the most ministers? Harper or Mulroney?

With the elevation Monday of MP Erin O’Toole into Stephen Harper’s cabinet, where O’Toole will serve as the minister for veterans affairs, the size of Harper’s current ministry is now at 40 members. A “ministry” is made up of all of those MPs who are, to use the Parliamentary language, styled as Ministers or as Ministers of State. Each of these individuals gets a significant salary boost, a car, a driver, and some extra political staff.

A ministry of 40 is pretty big. Some would say you could cut the size in half and no one would notice. Some complain about such a bloated cabinet. In fact, for a time yesterday, I thought that Harper — the leader of what some have been sold as the “Small-government Government” — had actually set the all-time record for the size of a ministry.

Why did I (and some others) come to that conclusion? Well, we did what we usually do when we need some numbers for historical perspective looked it up at the Parliamentary Web Site — parl.gc.ca — where you can find a page that lists “Size of Ministries”, a page compiled by the smart folks at the Library of Parliament, that goes all the way back to Macdonald.

If you look at that page, you’ll see that both Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin had ministries of 39 individuals. With Harper hitting 40 ministers, it was easy enough to say Harper was now the proud owner of the biggest minister of all time.

Not so fast, a friend e-mailed me. 

Check out this front page of the Montreal Gazette from Sept. 18, 1984:


How could this be? Surely reporters at the time would not get a number wrong that the Library of Parliament got right 30 years later?

So I jumped over to the Web site of the Privy Council Office. The PCO is where the bureaucrats work who support the work of the prime minister and some other ministers like the minister of democratic reform. It keeps records of who’s in cabinet, who is on cabinet committees, cabinet minutes, orders-in-council and so on. Mulroney’s time in office is known as the 24th Ministry in our country’s history and, at the PCO Web site, you can see a list of all the members of that ministry including the dates they were sworn in and the dates they left the ministry. Counting up the Ministers who were sworn in to the ministry that September of 1984 along with the Ministers of State sworn in the same day and you get a ministry of 40 people.

Back to the Library of Parliament data at “Size of Ministries” where, at the top of the list, there is this explainer so far as its data sources go:.

The figures from 1867 to March 2008 simply reflect the list of Cabinet ministers published in each edition of the Canadian Parliamentary Guide and include the Prime Minister. They do not reflect each cabinet shuffle. As of October 2008, each cabinet shuffle is compiled based on the Orders in Council which can be found on the Privy Council Office website.

I was still a bit muddy so I e-mailed the Library for a little more clarification and, this morning, got this helpful reply from Sonia Bebbington, the Library’s Director, Knowledge Management and Preservation:

The discrepancy between PARLINFO’s size of Ministries page, which reports 39 Ministers serving with The Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney in 1985, and the [Gazette] report from 1984 seems to reflect an issue of timing.

As noted in the page header, we have drawn historical figures for Ministry size from the Canadian Parliamentary Guide: we had not been compiling the historical figures in real time. The Canadian Parliamentary Guide which we used in this case was published in early 1985. In that guide, the Hon. Robert Carman Coates no longer appears as part of the Ministry (National Defence), having resigned. His portfolio appears under the Rt. Hon. Joseph Clark in an acting capacity, Mr. Clark already being named to the Ministry as Secretary of State for External Affairs.

So, in short: Mr. Mulroney indeed led a Ministry totalling 40 in September of 1984; however, the figure of 39 which we report for 1985 is in fact accurate according to our sources, based on the absence of Mr. Coates.

Clearly, the confusion stems from the fact that this page doesn’t currently show the original Ministry sworn in along with the PM. This is a gap in the data that we are now working to fix, and we will advise you once these figures are made available.

I may still have one more puzzle to solve before we can declare how big your ministry has to be before we declare it the biggest ministry ever. That’s because, in looking into the situation, yesterday, I came across an Ottawa Citizen story, published March 31, 1988 about one of Mulroney’s pre-election cabinet shuffles, and found this intriguing line:

“Today’s moves bring the size of the cabinet back up to 40, still one short of the record 41 Mulroney had earlier in his term of office.”


Ok — it looks like I’m back to the PCO Web site to try and match dates and cabinets together for the 24th Ministry to determine when and if Mulroney had a ministry of 41. Might take a while but I’ll update when I can …

In the meantime, Harper may not yet be able to take the prize for the largest ministry ever. But he’s darn close.

3 thoughts on “Who has the most ministers? Harper or Mulroney?”

  1. I guess for sake of argument, Conservatives have had the most ministers. However, it’s not as though Liberals have come as close as possible.

    Great information and I look forward to hearing the final tally, especially with the upcoming election 🙂

    1. All those ministers cost the taxpayers in the way of salary boosts, cars, drivers, extra staff and finally golden handshake PENSIONS!
      So much for fiscal responsibility! That is long forgotten as the monarch surrounds himself with buffer zones of cabinet ministers and expanded numbers of MPs.
      We pay the price for “bigger” government and less transparency, more advertising and less honesty, but the media is failing to hold them responsible for our loss of democracy!
      Please “5th estate’ do your job and hold their feet to the fire, NOW!

      1. Why did you reply to my comment?

        I fully comprehend the paycheque and perks of all those in public office and I also realize that BOTH parties are equally as hungry when they arrive at the public trough.

        You expect the media to hold public officials accountable? The same media who glosses over or refuses to report facts and conspires to attack the political party which doesn’t mesh with their personal ideology? The same media who prefers to write in-depth articles about legacies, good looks and charm, rather than qualifications and policy?

        Anyway, it’s the voter’s responsibility to hold public officials responsible for their actions. That means educating oneself to the issues and researching facts instead of believing a 30-second blurb from a ‘news’ channel. Ontario voters have proven they aren’t capable of that and we have 4 more years of corruption, ineptitude and spending to look forward to. Obviously, in this regard, the media was a day late and a dollar short.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *