New crew, charting the same old course
Cabinet shuffle changes little in Trudeau land
It was like one of Donald Trump’s verbal intensifiers. Before Wednesday’s cabinet shuffle the Liberals were focused on growing the economy and strengthening the middle class; after it, they became very, very focused. Before, they were great at being the government; now, they will be “super-duper,” to borrow from the president.
The shuffle provided the opportunity to signal to voters this government isn’t so fixated on stoking the culture wars that it has forgotten about the aspirations of the middle-class voters who elected it in the first place.
The new, improved cabinet shuffles the portfolios of a number of existing ministers, and introduced five new members to a bulging ministry.
Wednesday’s changes were calibrated to address the fresh challenges facing the government — in particular, Trump’s agenda and Doug Ford’s election in Ontario.
But this is a prime minister so certain he is always right that any changes to the ship’s crew are not going to have an impact on the captain, nor the direction in which his vessel is heading.
The appointment with the greatest potential is the introduction of Bill Blair as minister for border security and organized crime reduction. He will take over the “irregular migration” file from immigration minister Ahmed Hussen. Blair is an able man, as he proved on the cannabis file.
But the asylum-seeker problem is systemic — we are currently admitting twice as many refugees as the system is designed to handle. Without significant budget increases or major structural changes to reduce the steady stream of migrants illegally entering Quebec, one man, tapping into the bureaucracies of two other ministers, is unlikely to be able to turn the tide.
Dominic LeBlanc becomes the new minister for intergovernmental affairs and internal trade (he also assumes the position of the president of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada, chairing cabinet when Trudeau is absent). LeBlanc is hard to dislike and the calculation is that he can shepherd the provinces and give some meaning to the Canada Free Trade Agreement signed last year. To this point it has been as useless as a pulled tooth, but with uncertainties over NAFTA premiers know they have to harmonize meaningless regulatory differences like abattoir licensing. We may yet see beer freed to cross interprovincial borders.
Jim Carr, who offered a steady hand at natural resources, will seek to offer the same as the new minister for international trade diversification. The former trade minister, François-Philippe Champagne moves to handle infrastructure — a file that helped the Liberals win the election but which has since become a liability because the government is unable to get the money out of the door fast enough. Champagne is seen as being adept at playing defence in both official languages.
Amarjeet Sohi moves from infrastructure to natural resources, where he will be able to oversee the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion from his home province of Alberta. He was elected by fewer than 100 votes last time, so the idea of having him campaigning close to home in the run-up to the election, rather than handing out giant cheques across the country, makes sense.
Mélanie Joly pays the price for an uneven performance as heritage minister by being demoted to handle tourism and official languages. Trudeau described her Wednesday as a “strong voice” and said tourism is an “important portfolio.” But no one should be under any illusion that this is not a demotion for a widely-derided execution of her duties on the culture file, particularly the deal with Netflix last year.
Her old job has gone to Pablo Rodriguez, a veteran Quebec MP deemed to have maintained peace on the backbenches as chief government whip.
Most of the other changes are cosmetic, designed to maintain the 50:50 gender split, pander to particular demographic groups or help raise the profiles of MPs who might face tight electoral battles next year.
Mary Ng becomes minister of small business and export promotion, Filomena Tassi becomes minister of seniors, and Jonathan Wilkinson, an able MP from Vancouver who is likely to be in tough in 2019 thanks to the Trans Mountain decision, becomes fisheries minister.
But as mentioned, all these moves are inconsequential. The Conservatives positioned the shuffle as an “admission of failure” — confirmation the government has been unable to deliver on international trade, natural resources and border security.
They should know better — this is not a government that admits to its failures.
The concentration of power in very few hands in the Prime Minister’s Office and, to a lesser extent, the finance minister’s office, means it doesn’t much matter who is running the infrastructure file.
Policy is initiated at the centre and ministers are told what to do and say. Staff are often weak and inexperienced, and the input of the public service is ignored.
Substance is subverted to the prime minister’s narrative, such as the “dangerous game” he accuses the Conservatives of playing on the issue of asylum seekers. “The politics of fear and division are raising anxieties that don’t solve problems,” he said Wednesday outside Rideau Hall.
The Conservative “holierthan-thou” twitter ad, featuring a black man with a suitcase crossing a gap in a broken fence, was dogwhistle politics at its worst, appealing deliberately to the xenophobic fringe.
But the “irregular migrant” issue has been exacerbated by bad public-policy choices. Fixing the problem is more difficult and expensive than talking about “playing the fear card.”
Similarly, the Liberals’ rhetoric about positioning the country for “growth and success” sounds like they have recognized they have no fiscal policy framework to protect Canada’s long-term capacity and are moving back to the political centre.
But those are just words. Expect the spending to continue. As two experienced political operators, Sean Speer and Robert Asselin, wrote in Policy Options this week: “The hard truth is that policy-makers will have almost no policy leverage when the next recession hits — which, according to historical trends, tends to occur every eight years or so.” (Speer’s criticism may be predictable — he was an adviser to Stephen Harper; Asselin’s is not — he was until recently an adviser to Bill Morneau, the finance minister).
Things are unlikely to remain “great,” far less “superduper.” This shuffle changes that little.