John Ivison: For the most part, bloated Trudeau cabinet is window dressing and little else
By contrast, there was nothing triumphant about the way Trudeau’s ministers trudged toward the Governor-General’s residence to be sworn in on a chilly winter’s afternoon on Wednesday, their leader nowhere in sight. This is a government that has become aware belatedly that much of the country has tired of its vainglorious, self-congratulatory approach.
The most important change to emerge from the day may well be that the Liberal government now has an operations committee, chaired by Dominic Leblanc. A central complaint about the Trudeau government’s first four years was that it reflected the capricious personality of its prime minister, often more excited about the initial idea than in implementation. It seems to have finally dawned that it is time to put away childish things – the costumes, the photo ops, the posturing – and become a grown-up government that actually executes on its agenda.
For the rest, it was largely window-dressing.
Having just penned a column asserting it doesn’t matter who is in cabinet because the policy has already been decided upon by an unelected cabal, it may be a bit rich to wax on for another several hundred words about who’s in and who’s out. The statement should be qualified. Strong ministers can prove decisive in implementing, if not conceiving, policy. The trouble with this Liberal government is that there have been very few strong ministers – and the new lot don’t look like much of an upgrade.
We now have a ministry bloated by more members of the Queen’s Privy Council – 36 in total – each one earning a stipend of $264,000, even if they are in charge of nothing more than a brass plate and a driver. Mona Fortier, the Ottawa MP, is the new minister of middle class prosperity, but has no ministerial department (she will be “supported” by the finance department). There are no hints in the accompanying literature about the goals for this new ministry. A Subaru in every driveway, perhaps?
One thing that is clear is that the direction will continue to be unrelenting leftward – spending money as a quick fix, rather than doing the hard work of reform. The conviction is deeply rooted that a majority would have been Trudeau’s, if only the Liberals had been able to convince more progressive Quebecers that the spending taps would remain on gush. Nobody should expect any variations from that strategy ahead of the next election. It was noticeable that 10 ministers from Quebec were appointed on Wednesday, including former environmental activist Steven Guilbeault in heritage and François-Philippe Champagne at foreign affairs, compared to eight in the last cabinet.
That over-representation of Quebecers will not help Chrystia Freeland, in her new gig as minister for intergovernmental affairs, to stifle rising discontent in the West. She was, no doubt, induced by guilt to take the job – “ask not what your country can do for you…”. The pill seems to have been sugared with the addition of the deputy prime minister title and a pledge that she could also see the new NAFTA deal over the legislative finishing line. But to make progress on the unity file, she will need funds and political latitude.
Provincial premiers generally like to deal with prime ministers, not their subordinates. Freeland will struggle to gain their attention and respect.
The appointment of Seamus O’Regan as minister of natural resources is not going to aid her cause, given his deep roots in Newfoundland and lack of experience in the resource industry. The Liberal election campaign on the Prairies was co-ordinated by a Newfoundlander, with unspectacular results. A repeat performance seems more than likely unless O’Regan immerses himself in the politics of the oil patch and, crucially, gets some good advice from people who understand the disconnection in the West.
Elsewhere there were some positive developments. The appointment of Anita Anand as minister of public services and procurement is a genuine surprise. The rookie MP for Oakville is an accomplished law professor at the University of Toronto, where she specializes in corporate governance. It is encouraging that people of substance still want to run away to join the parliamentary circus, though quite why they would want to lower their ambitions remains a mystery.
Bill Morneau remains at finance, which is on balance a good thing as growth slows in the economy. One of Morneau’s colleagues suggested that finance, long an independent power base, has become a “vassal state” under Trudeau. It is past time for Morneau to assert himself with the free-spenders in the prime minister’s office.
David Lametti returns as justice minister, again a net positive. In his oath of office, he affirmed a promise to uphold the independence of the judiciary and prosecutorial independence, which should forestall any prospect of SNC-Lavalin being granted a remediation deal.
A more politically acceptable solution would be for the company to ring-fence the parts of the business that caused the legal liability stemming from the bribery allegations. Lametti will, one hopes, resist any pressure from the centre to intervene.
There are seven new faces in cabinet – including Marc Miller at Indigenous services and Marco Mendicino at immigration, both able; both of whom narrowly missed out last summer. After the failed experiment of promoting MPs not steeped in partisan politics – step forward Jody Wilson Raybould and Jane Philpott – Trudeau has fallen back on friends and loyalists this time around. (Miller, like O’Regan, was in the prime minister’s wedding party).
This is a cabinet that Trudeau claims will “work tirelessly for all Canadians”. Perhaps. But voters can rest assured it will be positively indefatigable in its efforts to get re-elected with a majority whenever the next election comes around.