Important portfolios are changing hands and some new roles have been created. It signals shifting priorities and a new balance of power in Trudeau’s Ottawa.
Finally, finally! The season of speculation about the cabinet is over. On a drenched day in the nation’s capital, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has introduced a new cabinet.
It is a substantial mix. Only seven ministers maintain exactly the same portfolios they had before being reelected. Many others are moving sideways, with important portfolios changing hands, but some are absent, and a handful of new faces are joining the team, some with entirely new portfolios signaling that liberal priorities are going to another minority Parliament.
Here are five key takeaways from Tuesday’s inauguration.
Power is changing with major promotions and demotions.
Harjit Sajjan is, as expected, as Defense Minister; it has been transferred to international development. It’s a nod to the talent of pandemic-era procurement minister Anita Anand to be put in charge of such a big mess. (Or a political death sentence. But let’s keep things positive.)
Totally out of the picture despite his re-election are Jim Carr, who has had recent health problems; Marc Garneau, who died in foreign affairs, who is rumored to be in the queue of an ambassador to France; and Bardish Chagger, who has had a difficult few years as House leader.
Meanwhile, the stars of Quebec ministers Mélanie Joly and Steven Guilbeault are on the rise; Joly is the new foreign minister and Guilbeault will be on the loose in the environmental file, something the former Greenpeace activist has talked about throughout his career. Karina Gould, the minister for international development, is now in charge of families, children and social development, a promotion in light of this government’s strong focus on childcare.
A notable new face in the cabinet is Sean Fraser, a MP from Nova Scotia who won the “Best Speaker” award at the Maclean’s 2021 Parliamentarian of the Year Awards. He takes charge of the immigration file of Marco Mendecino, who has his own great promotion to public safety.
Liberals seek to get the most out of a minority Parliament, but a large cabinet means a confusion of priorities.
The fact that the cabinet has remained so large – with 38 ministers – indicates that the Liberals want to be ambitious with their third term, despite failing to make progress in an election that Trudeau supposedly called to secure a majority.
But it also means that the liberals’ long list of priorities could get confused when it comes to the legislative agenda. It is almost impossible to think of a political area that is not covered by the broad offices of ministers. It is almost impossible to imagine a cabinet table where their voices carry equal weight, or a Parliament that can handle important initiatives from more than a handful.
Still, the notable new portfolios point to areas the government cares about. The headline is that housing has its own minister in Ahmed Hussen. Mental health and addictions also has a minister in Carolyn Bennett. This indicates the seriousness of the government on that record and demonstrates a tacit recognition of the need to renew Bennett’s previous role in crown-Indian relations, which will now be headed by Marc Miller.
A trio of rookie ministers are responsible for specific areas for economic development: Gudie Hutchings gets “rural economic development” in a big way; Helena Jaczek Gets Southern Ontario; and Pascale St-Onge, who is also Minister of Sports, gets the Quebec regions. (Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal takes the Prairies and the North; Patty Hajdu, in addition to her new Indigenous Services role, gets Northern Ontario; and Ginette Petitpas Taylor, back for a second chance at Cabinet after being demoted, she is in charge of official languages and the Atlantic Canada Opportunity Agency).
Foreign policy is still an afterthought.
The appointment of Mélanie Joly as foreign minister seems to say more about the future of Joly and the Liberal Party than it does about Trudeau’s foreign policy agenda.
Without a doubt, this is a great promotion for Joly. She groped in the early days of government (see: Netflix and Quebec), but more recently she has found her footing and is on the lips of those who speculate on who could replace Trudeau each time he resigns. If the experts are correct that the Liberals would like to create a level playing field for those potential successors, this is one way to put Joly in league with Chrystia Freeland, who remains Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.
However, Joly’s appointment does not send a particular signal to the global community. Foreign governments will find little in your CV that indicates how you will approach international politics. Theoretically, that could be to her advantage as she tries to build a meaningful profile and handle big geopolitical issues. But she is the fifth and youngest foreign minister to serve under a prime minister who has never seemed particularly interested in foreign policy. It will be an uphill battle no matter what.
The era of the pandemic is (almost) over.
Jean-Yves Duclos has been one of the most effective and least controversial ministers in the Trudeau government. It signals a level of seriousness that the former president of the Treasury Board is in charge of health.
Emergency preparedness has been drawn from the public safety umbrella as its own portfolio, another serious change that could have an impact on the way the government plans ahead for future disasters. It will be headed by Bill Blair.
But there is little evidence of the pandemic on this list. Some speculated that a 2021 cabinet would include a new ministry in charge of public health. Not so. Instead, we have new portfolios focused on other crises. This is a government that is ready to move on.
That’s despite the strangeness of a cabinet swearing-in ceremony where everyone is masked at all times, where the oaths are slightly muffled, where smiles darken and elbows (in some cases, forearm strokes) have replaced handshakes. The shadow still hangs over.
The sunny roads are gone.
Cabinet building is always an exercise in regional policy and optics. Trudeau’s first photogenic list in 2015 was carefully crafted to project optimism and diversity. And it was sheer luck that the front bankers were able to walk across the Rideau Hall lawn on a beautiful day. But he gave the new prime minister’s “sunny roads” speech a ring of destiny.
There is no doubt that the shine has faded. After six difficult years of governing, a handful of ethical scandals and two difficult elections, Trudeau’s liberals are punished. The employees are tired. The opposition parties are encouraged. And a new cabinet leaves the building on a cold, rainy day. How about the symbolism?