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Atlantic boost on front bench noteworthy in shuffle aimed at getting action, say strategists

By Laura Ryckewaert      

There are now five Atlantic MPs in cabinet, and on the West Coast, Vancouver-area MP Carla Qualtrough has been boosted to the more senior Public Services portfolio.

Ministers who were part of the Aug. 28 cabinet shuffle, from the left: Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott, Sports and Persons with Disabilities Minister Kent Hehr, Public Services and Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough, Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor, and Veterans Affairs and Associate Defence Minister Seamus O'Regan.
The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

The creation of a new portfolio and the splitting of Indigenous and Northern Affairs were the big surprises out of the recent Liberal cabinet shuffle, but also of note was Atlantic Canada’s increased representation on the front bench, says Greg MacEachern, a senior vice-president at Environics Communications.

“The Liberal Party in the last election, in terms of the seat count, swept the [Atlantic] region and there have been questions about whether or not there was adequate representation in the federal cabinet from that area,” said Mr. MacEachern.

With new Veterans Affairs and Associate Defence Minister Seamus O’Regan’s (St. John’s South-Mount Pearl, N.L.) appointment to cabinet, “Newfoundland regains their voice,” lost in light of Liberal MP Judy Foote’s (Bonavista-Burin-Trinity, N.L.) recent decision to step down.

And in new Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor (Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe, N.B.) New Brunswick now has two of its MPs at the table, noted Mr. MacEachern.

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc (Beauséjour, N.B.) already has a seat in cabinet, along with fellow East Coasters Treasury Board President Scott Brison (Kings-Hants, N.S.) and Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay (Cardigan, P.E.I.).

“From the Atlantic provinces you have five ministers, all with significant portfolios … That’s one of the takeaways,” said Mr. MacEachern.

Overall, he said the recent shuffle is about accomplishing commitments ahead of the next election, and setting up the Liberals to be able to face Canadians in an election and say: “We’ve accomplished what we set out to accomplish and deserve to be returned.”

“This cabinet right now are the yeomen. They need to get the work done before the next election,” said Mr. MacEachern.

Robin MacLachlan, a vice president at Summa Strategies, said along with the “substantive nature of the shuffle” to try to address lagging portfolios, “there’s certainly politics involved here too.”

“It’s going to be hard to keep 100 per cent of the seats in Atlantic Canada the next time around, but the Liberals know that if they don’t keep the vast majority of them, their majority is quite vulnerable. So I think this was a bit of a nod to Atlantic Canada and the role they played,” said Mr. MacLachlan.

In that vein, he said he isn’t just looking east, noting that new Public Services and Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough (Delta, B.C.) has also jumped from a junior to a senior ministry, and is one of several Liberal MPs in a “key suburban Vancouver riding.”

“That’s a signal of how important the B.C. pickups they got in the last election are to maintaining their narrow, 14-seat majority,” he said.

The Liberals swept all 32 seats in Atlantic Canada in 2015, and jumped from two to 17 MPs in British Columbia, largely in and around Vancouver and the lower mainland.

On the heels of Ms. Foote’s Aug. 24 announcement that she would be stepping down from cabinet and resigning as an MP this fall, the Liberal government shuffled five cabinet roles on Aug. 28, and created one new one by announcing plans to split up the department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC).

Ms. Qualtrough was named to Ms. Foote’s old Public Services portfolio, and was in turn replaced by new Sports and Persons with Disabilities Minister Kent Hehr (Calgary Centre, Alta.), who’s Veteran Affairs portfolio was handed to Mr. O’Regan. Replaced by Ms. Petitpas Taylor, former Health minister Jane Philpott (Markham-Stouffville, Ont.) was named to the newly created role of Indigenous Services Minister, and will work closely alongside Carolyn Bennett (Toronto-St. Paul’s, Ont.) in her reworked role as Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister.

“The work that Carolyn Bennett has been doing at INAC over the past two years has brought us to this place where we can look at next steps. There’s a sense that we have pushed the creaky old structures around INAC about as far as they can go,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) told media at Rideau Hall after the swearing-in last week.

“There is much consultation [to be done] with Indigenous peoples, with the provinces, with various partners as we move forward on the legislative framework and changes necessary to truly move beyond the current structures in place,” he said, noting there will be two deputy ministers and departments associated with them.

The government has highlighted that the splitting of INAC was a previous recommendation of the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

As Indigenous Services minister, Ms. Philpott will be in charge of the more day-to-day delivery of services, like ending boil-water advisories, housing, and mental-health support for First Nations communities, and generally closing the funding gap.

Ms. Bennett, on the other hand, will be focused on the government’s nation-to-nation relationships with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people, as well as leading work on how to split up INAC.

While rumours of a summer cabinet shuffle had been floating since spring, the splitting of INAC—a department with more than 4,500 employees and a budget of about $10-billion—took many by surprise, as did the overall size of the shuffle.

Geoff Norquay, a principal with Earnscliffe Strategy Group, said while it was a “complete surprise,” the splitting of INAC “makes a great deal of sense.” But as always, he said the “proof will be in the pudding” on whether Ms. Philpott can make some “fast, recognizable, and real changes that will at least begin to meet the commitments that the prime minister made.”

“The prime minister vastly overpromised the changes he would bring to Crown-Indigenous relations. They were unattainable in three terms, never mind one term, and we’re barely halfway through the first term. So I think the prime minister has faced some significant expectations challenges that his government has not met, and that no government could meet. So I think he’s made a good call here,” said Mr. Norquay.

Mr. Norquay said his sense is the idea of cleaving INAC in two hasn’t had a long shelf life.

“I don’t think this is a situation where six months of planning has already gone into it,” he said, adding there are lots of questions to sort out, including rules of engagement for the two new organizations, and the answers will impact how challenging the task of dividing INAC will be.

“The department, as currently constituted, it represents an impossible management challenge for any single minister. There’s just too much going on. Start with the fact that there are [about] 620 Indigenous communities across the country, 150 years of history, and everything that flows from that,” said Mr. Norquay.

“That’s an awfully wide span of issues to try to be solving all at the same time.”

Jane Philpott is seen as ‘a fixer.’ The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Mr. MacLachlan noted Ms. Philpott is “widely seen as a fixer” in the government, having ticked off her “to-do” boxes in getting assisted-dying legislation passed and finalizing health-funding agreements with all the provinces and territories. She’ll now bring her steady hand to get action on the many commitments the government has made to First Nations communities.

Over at Public Services and Procurement Canada, Ms. Qualtrough faces her own set of challenges, including fixing the ongoing Phoenix pay system fiasco, and some major, already-delayed procurement decisions, including purchasing naval warships and replacing Canada’s fighter jets.

Mr. MacLachlan, who works with a number of national sports organizations like Rugby Canada and in turn became familiar with Ms. Qualtrough and her team at Sports, said the minister is an “achiever.”

“She’s highly competent, highly ambitious, and she really loves to delve into her briefs. She has experience working in fairly large bureaucratic organizations, dealing with disability and sport issues, in kind of fixing problems that involve large organizations, so I think she’s being trusted because of her competence,” he said, noting he’s heard that she “managed stakeholders very well,” was liked by them, and was seen as “approachable.”

“[Sports is] often viewed as being a more low-level or junior portfolio, but she never treated it as such and I think she was recognized for that,” said Mr. MacLachlan.

Over at Veterans Affairs, in spite of “genuine” efforts, Mr. Hehr hadn’t delivered on the Liberal government’s biggest commitments to veterans, namely around lifetime pensions, and “was facing a lot backlash,” said Mr. MacLachlan.

Though a rookie MP, Mr. O’Regan, a former host of CTV’s now cancelled Canada AM, is a “really effective and empathetic communicator,” he said.

“I think that will be something the prime minister’s hoping will help build rapport and trust with veterans groups, but at the end it is going to be all about results,” said Mr. MacLachlan.

Ginette Petitpas Taylor is seen as ‘someone to watch.’ The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Previously parliamentary secretary to Finance Minister Bill Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.), Ms. Petitpas Taylor will now join work on the marijuana legalization file, along with tackling the opioid crisis and other issues. Mr. MacEachern noted Ms. Petitpas Taylor’s background as a social worker and the emphasis Liberals have put on mental health and addiction.

“She seems to be a very polished communicator and very forthright,” said Mr. MacEachern, adding he was told years ago she was “someone to watch.”

“I spent some time in New Brunswick during the 2015 election and spoke to some of my former colleagues from the Martin era, and they predicted great things for Petitpas Taylor,” he said.

With the House of Commons set to return on Sept. 18, Mr. MacLachlan said he’s expecting the government to be keenly focused on ticking campaign commitment boxes as quickly as possible, with “2019 almost around the corner if you think of how fast the first two years of this mandate went by.”

“The results that the government can show from the first two years were pretty much the results they could show from the first six months. … They’ve been heavy on consultation and less on policy outcomes and results,” he said.

The Hill Times

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