Liberals all talk, say detractors
• 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.