Lib­er­als all talk, say de­trac­tors

National Post (Latest Edition) - - CANADA - John I vi s on

• Kirsten Mercer was On­tario Premier Kath­leen Wynne’s jus­tice pol­icy ad­viser at Queen’s Park.

When Justin Trudeau was elected prime min­is­ter, sur­rounded by a Prae­to­rian Guard of for­mer On­tario Lib­er­als, it was nat­u­ral that Mercer would look to Ottawa for her next ca­reer move.

She joined the of­fice of new jus­tice min­is­ter Jody Wil­sonRay­bould as chief of staff, just as her hus­band, Matthew Men­del­sohn, be­came first deputy sec­re­tary at the Privy Coun­cil Of­fice, a political ap­point­ment re­spon­si­ble for “re­sults and de­liv­ery.” He is widely tipped to be the next Clerk of the Privy Coun­cil, Canada’s top pub­lic ser­vant.

Yet within months of re­lo­cat­ing to Ottawa, Mercer has left Wil­son- Ray­bould’s of­fice, to be re­placed by Cyrus Reporter, a trusted Trudeau ad­viser, who was his chief of staff in op­po­si­tion.

To lose one chief may have been a mis­for­tune; but to lose two looks like care­less­ness. Also gone is Maxime Dea, a lawyer who was ap­pointed to head up the of­fice of Maryam Mon­sef, the min­is­ter for Demo­cratic Re­form.

This might usu­ally amount to lit­tle more than a foot­note in the Hill Climbers col­umn in Par­lia­ment’s house or­gan, The Hill Times.

But Mercer’s ap­point­ment, and sub­se­quent de­par­ture, plays into a com­men­tary on the green­horn Lib­eral govern­ment that is gain­ing in­creas­ing cur­rency.

The f i rst nar­ra­tive is that min­is­te­rial of­fices are crammed with “kids” who used to work at Queen’s Park, old friends hired by for­mer McGuinty-era Lib­er­als, Ger­ald Butts, now Trudeau’s prin­ci­pal sec­re­tary in Ottawa, and Katie Telford, his chief of staff.

The se­cond is that be­hind the cur­tain, things are not quite as fab­u­lous as the Lib­er­als would have you be­lieve.

Pol­icy is mov­ing at the pace of coastal ero­sion and the blame for that is be­ing placed on the slow ap­point­ment of staff. The loss of two chiefs in the first months in power has not helped mat­ters.

In sum, the knock on the Trudeau govern­ment is that it is a clone of the McGuinty/ Wynne On­tario Lib­er­als — in­ex­pe­ri­enced lightweights with a zeal for spend­ing, only ex­ceeded by a lust for spin­ning.

There is some merit to th­ese rum­blings, even if they are com­ing from for­mer “se­nior Lib­er­als” whose voices no longer carry the weight they did. The Trudeau Lib­er­als have been much more adept at sell­ing their mes­sage than im­ple­ment­ing it. Min­is­te­rial of­fices re­main un­der­staffed — the Govern­ment Elec­tronic Direc­tory Sys­tem lists just three staff mem­bers in Navdeep Bains’ mas­sive Min­istry of Sci­ence, In­no­va­tion and Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment ( he has since added chief of staff, El­der Mar­ques, a prom­i­nent Bay Street lit­i­ga­tion lawyer).

It’s a mys­tery where the Lib­er­als found the 283 peo­ple who needed to be in Paris for the United Na­tions cli­mate change con­fer­ence in Novem­ber, be­yond the im­mutable rule that the num­ber of peo­ple re­quired for th­ese trips is in di­rect pro­por­tion to the num­ber of Miche­lin three-star restau­rants in the lo­ca­tion.

The lack of ca­pac­ity has an im­me­di­ate knock-on ef­fect on pol­icy. Stake­hold­ers say they can’t reach peo­ple in govern­ment, cre­at­ing frus­tra­tions even among fel­low trav­ellers.

On any given is­sue, in any given depart­ment, the daily mantra heard by the me­dia is that “no de­ci­sion has been made.” A more ac­cu­rate state­ment of­ten would be that “we’re so over­whelmed, we haven’t even had time to dis­cuss it.” The Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice has taken its time to ap­point chiefs of staff, nom­i­nally it seems so that it can hire peo­ple who will do what it says. In turn, those peo­ple have taken their time to hire the other staff needed to ad­vise the min­is­ter.

The toll is be­ing felt not just at the staff level — Cather­ine McKenna, the cli­mate change min­is­ter, was chair of a cab­i­net com­mit­tee vet­ting ma­jor de­fence pro­cure­ment but has been qui­etly re­placed by Jim Carr, the nat­u­ral re­sources min­is­ter, be­cause she is so over­loaded.

Mean­while, the Lib­er­als tout a pol­icy of open­ness and trans­parency, which is great. But it’s less com­mend­able, if, as Henry David Thoreau said of the ad­vent of the Maineto-Texas magnetic tele­graph, “Maine and Texas have noth­ing im­por­tant to com­mu­ni­cate.”

Where the nar­ra­tive about the Trudeau­vians as wellinten­tioned in­genues is over­done is the claim that se­nior staff are a ca­bal of like-minded Gen- Xers from Queen’s Park. In fact, with Mercer’s de­par­ture, there are more veter­ans of Que­bec Lib­eral gov­ern­ments than for­mer On­tario Grits among the 30 chiefs.

The group is al­most as di­verse as the cab­i­net — 13 women — and from a va­ri­ety of eth­nic back­grounds. The only com­mon­al­ity, apart from their political val­ues, ap­pears to be the pre­dom­i­nance of lawyers.

Butts re­mains un­apolo­getic about the hu­man re­sources rule fol­lowed to staff min­is­ters’ of­fices — “slow to hire, quick to fire.”

Kate Pur­chase, Trudeau’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor, said the Lib­er­als did take their time hir­ing but it was a de­lib­er­ate move to make sure there was a good fit be­tween min­is­ter and chief of staff.

“There are al­ways one or two that don’t work out but we wanted to make sure we got it right, so that the govern­ment is more sta­ble mov­ing for­ward,” she said.

The ex­pec­ta­tion is that the govern­ment will be fully staffed within the next month or so, she added.

Fair enough. But that may not mol­lify those caught up in the eco­nomic down­turn. They might have ex­pected the new Lib­eral govern­ment would move ex­pe­di­tiously, rather than re­peat­edly up­dat­ing us on how bad things are get­ting.

Talk, as the Chi­nese say, doesn’t cook rice.

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