Why the Trudeau Cabinet needs to undergo an overhaul
This is a recipe for a Cabinet overhaul, not a DIY exercise. The latter group was assembled before a pandemic, and some of the party’s priorities have taken on new urgency and increased public scrutiny. Large portfolio managers will signal to the insiders Trudeau trusts the most to carry out an ambitious agenda.
Some newcomers, including Alberta MP Randy Boissonnault, are immediate contenders. But adding a man means either cutting off another or promoting an additional woman. It could get bulky. Trudeau’s last cabinet had 37 ministers, himself included. Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper both peaked at age 40. Ultimately, Trudeau could set a new Canadian record.
When Trudeau unveils the new Cabinet on Tuesday, he will likely turn at least a few relatively unknown elected officials into senior officials. It will also disappoint loyal MPs who believed this was their time, but will have to settle for less.
The exhilarating work of building a Cabinet is always eagerly awaited after an election. But unlike US presidents who tear up their secretaries inside and outside government, prime ministers generally stick to their parliamentary caucuses. They choose their main bench from an elite group of people, each sent to Ottawa by thousands of voters, who believe they deserve a seat at the table. Chrétien says that “the wait adds an undercurrent of jealousy and grievance that does not exist in the American system.”
Wernick’s cabinetmaking tips: Michael Wernick was Clerk of the Privy Council for three years during the Trudeau era, the most senior official overseeing the bureaucracy and a key non-partisan adviser to the Prime Minister and Cabinet. He also worked in the Privy Council Office under three other prime ministers.
Wernick wrote a book this year, “Governing Canada: A Guide to the Tradecraft of Politics,” that the Ottawa insiders joke is a nap – far from anything they hoped for from a man who spent decades to watch how governments really worked in Canada.
But Wernick’s book offers a useful plan for new prime ministers, including sound advice on choosing a front bench. Among his tips for keeping the caucus guessed: “You want them to worry and, in some cases, fear you.”
Start by geography: Wernick advises cabinetmakers to start with geography.
Anyone who is a lone Liberal representative in a key region – say Boissonnault in conservative-dominated Alberta – is instantly in the conversation.
Then fill the top positions like finance and foreign affairs – great places for former leadership rivals. Shortly after the election, Trudeau cemented Chrystia Freeland as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance. Freeland is increasingly seen as the heir apparent.
Focus on the priorities: Wernick’s next step is to find trusted stewards for the highest electoral priorities. Trudeau’s Liberals have pledged big on climate change, housing affordability and the recovery of Covid. He points out that former provincial ministers “may be a good choice for portfolios that are more risky than bad things arise, as they are less likely to be easily confused or crippled.”
The Trudeau caucus is full of them: Lena Diab in Nova Scotia; and Marie-France Lalonde, Yasir Naqvi, Michael Coteau and Helena Jaczek in Ontario.
Fill the slate: The last step of the PM is to consider gender, race and ethnicity. “You’re going to be judged on this,” Wernick writes.
This is where Trudeau will make the toughest calls. Sean Fraser is a three-term Liberal MP from a constituency in Nova Scotia who generally votes Conservative. He skillfully defended his government’s record in the House of Commons. And he also makes friends in the right places. A connected insider recently informed POLITICO of a local dinner where Fraser was all smiles with Tim Houston, the new Progressive Conservative Prime Minister whose riding straddles Fraser’s Central Nova.
Fraser loyalists will say he’s ready for prime time. But cabinet lost a voice in Nova Scotia in the last election when Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan was beaten. The Trudeau cabinet will have as many women as men, which increases the chances of Diab. Of course, Trudeau could name both. But if a Maritime province deserves two ministers, New Brunswickers might complain if they only have one left.
The odds choices: Chrétien wrote in “My Years as Prime Minister” that his first choices were relatively straightforward. The same is probably true for Trudeau. He is sure to surprise political insiders when he unveils his team, but no one will be shocked if high-performing people like Carla Qualtrough and Anita Anand – the overseers of the Covid relief programs and the vaccine supply, respectively. – get big promotions. The two are in talks to replace Sajjan in defense.
Marc Miller has built a solid reputation in Indigenous services and no one complains about Marc Garneau as Minister of Foreign Affairs. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be mixed up.
“It is generally wise to keep ministers in their ministry long enough to allow them to learn the ropes and master the problems,” wrote Chrétien. “But too little change can create frustration and turmoil among backbenchers who see no movement and therefore no opportunity for advancement in their own careers.”
The consolation prize: Chrétien said he was in the mood for raising new voices. “There is an unfortunate misconception in Ottawa that if you are not a minister, you are not successful.”
Anyone who doesn’t break Cabinet could become parliamentary secretary – Fraser’s repeated fate to this day – or committee chair. Anyone relegated to these positions should do their best and hope that the Rube Goldberg machine that produces the Cabinet will perform more favorably down the line. “It’s complex,” wrote Chrétien, “and it’s not always fair.