Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet will have to try to achieve all their top agenda items between now and the next federal budget, after which the unofficial pre-electoral activities will start and everything the government does will be seen through the prism of political opportunism, say Liberal insiders.
“Starting next February, they’re going to be in the pre-electoral mode, it gets harder to get things done because the opposition will attribute motive to anything, sometimes correctly, sometimes totally [based on] their imagination,” said former Liberal cabinet minister Don Boudria, now a senior counsellor for public affairs with Hill & Knowlton Canada. “That’s part of the deal, you have to accept that. It makes it more challenging for the government, the closer you get to the election.”
Parliament is returning for the fall sitting this week after the summer parliamentary recess, and federal budgets are usually tabled in February or March. The next budget will be the Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) government’s third, and the pre-budget consultations start this session. The Liberals will reach the mid-point of their mandate on Oct. 19, and next federal election is scheduled for Oct. 21, 2019.
Mr. Boudria, who held several portfolios, including the government House leader in the Jean Chrétien cabinet, said once the pre-electoral politics start, governments become reluctant to touch politically-sensitive issues, as they become concerned about their potential impact on the next election. Also, he said that opposition parties try to exploit controversial government policies and drag debate over them close to the election time to make them issues in the election campaign.
“There will be risk aversion overtones all the time. ‘Should we raise such and such,’ ministers will say to one another, given how close we are to an election,” Mr. Boudria said.
“In case of the opposition, if they see anything is controversial, they try to slow it down and bring it as close to the election as possible to cause political damage on their opponent. This fall is the time to get controversial things through. After that, it gets harder.”
Worried about electoral consequences, he said, governments become wary of making even routine changes required for the effective governance of departments in the pre-election season.
Mr. Boudria said sometimes small, routine government initiatives become enormous political headaches, which no one is able to anticipate ahead of time.
He gave the example of a 1996 regulatory change introduced by then-health minister David Dingwall on cheese made from unpasteurized milk, which became a huge political issue for the Chrétien government. Mr. Boudria said the then-Bloc Québécois leadership painted this issue as an attack on the French culture. In the end, the issue became so controversial that the government had to abandon the regulatory change, Mr. Boudria said.
He predicted that based on the fall session’s legislative achievements, the government could prorogue Parliament at the end of the year or early next year to reset their legislative agenda. Mr. Boudria made this prediction based on his political experience, not on any inside information.
Former Liberal MP Joe Jordan, who served as parliamentary secretary to former prime minister Jean Chrétien from 2000 to 2003, said now is the time for the Trudeau cabinet to set the tone going into the next election and prove to Canadians with concrete actions that they believe in delivering results.
“This is really where they set the tone: Do they talk, or do they act?” Mr. Jordan said. “If you wait too long [beyond the next federal budget], then it just becomes, the only reason you are doing this now is because you’re heading into the polls. They need to start now, delivering on this stuff so that they look like a visionary government, an interventionist government, but also a government that can actually move its files.”
Both Mr. Boudria and Mr. Jordan said they believe there will be at least one more cabinet shuffle before the next election. They said months before every election, all prime ministers check with their ministers if any are not planning to run again, and politicians don’t like to put out that information until it’s a fait accompli.
“That will cause at least one more shuffle,” said Mr. Jordan.
He observed that unlike some former prime ministers, Mr. Trudeau and his team do not appear to be shy about shuffling ministers if they believe a minister is not delivering the desired results. So, he warned, all ministers and their staffers must consult their respective mandate letters and use that as road map.
“What they want right now is, they want results,” said Mr. Jordan. “So, if I am a political staffer in a minister’s office, I’m going back to that mandate letter and the next time we have a staff meeting, I’m going to say ‘look, forget all this other stuff that has clouded our world. We’ve got to get back to this stuff. This is the stuff that people are going to judge us on. And the day of reckoning before our next shuffle is coming.”
Meanwhile, about the Aug. 28 cabinet changes, Mr. Jordan said the government was “forced into a shuffle that they really didn’t want to have right now” after Judy Foote (Bonavista-Burin-Trinity, N.L.) announced she was immediately leaving the position of public services minister due to health reasons, and will soon vacate her MP’s job.
Mr. Jordan explained that the government probably would have preferred to wait until some time next year before making one last major shuffle prior to the 2018 election—which he said will still happen.
But when the need to make cabinet changes presented itself, Mr. Jordan said the opportunity was taken to address some issues.
“It looks like they addressed a few files that they thought needed to be addressed,” he said, referring to the appointment of Seamus O’Regan (St. John’s South-Mount Pearl, N.L.) as veterans affairs minister and Jane Philpott as Indigenous services minister.
“When you look at the specific ministries that were impacted, I think they were ones where the centre was getting concerned that they weren’t seeing the progress that they wanted to see,” Mr. Jordan said.
With Mr. O’Regan replacing Kent Hehr (Calgary Centre, Alta.) in veterans affairs, Mr. Jordan said Mr. Hehr’s move to sport and persons with disabilities was somewhat of a demotion, but not a full rebuke of Mr. Hehr’s work so far, given that they did keep him in cabinet.
Mr. Jordan said the splitting the Indigenous affairs portfolio, which saw Carolyn Bennett’s (Toronto-St. Paul’s, Ont.) title change slightly to Crown-Indigenous relations minister, also should not be interpreted as meaning Ms. Bennett’s work thus far is unappreciated.
“I just think she needs help,” he said. “I think that it was a an awfully big ask of a minister [to overhaul the nature of relations with Indigenous people and improve their services], and I think that what they’ve done, by splitting it based on function, is going to get some of the routinized stuff and maybe some the time-consuming stuff that’s more process-related [off the plate of Mr. Bennett].”
Mr. Jordan said there were “two winners” in the cabinet shuffle—Carla Qualtrough (Delta, B.C.), who was moved from sport and persons with disabilities to public services, and Ginette Petitpas Taylor (Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe, N.B.), a parliamentary secretary who was made health minister.
“Clearly, [Ms. Petitpas Taylor] must have impressed the upper echelons of the centre, because there’s not a lot of on-the-job training when you’re put in a portfolio like [health],” he said.
Mr. Jordan said the government must also have a great deal of faith in Ms. Qualtrough’s abilities, giving her the portfolio responsible for fixing problems with the Phoenix payroll system for public servants.
While some might feel Mr. O’Regan’s appointment to cabinet was linked to his personal friendship with Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Jordan said, “he’s more than that in the sense that he’s a known personality [and] tremendously skilled politically. So I don’t know if [Mr. O’Regan’s promotion to cabinet] was inevitable, but I don’t think anybody was really surprised.”
Mr. O’Regan became known to many Canadians while he was a co-host of the former CTV news show Canada AM.
In this shuffle, Mr. Jordan noted that the government managed to almost maintain its gender-parity in cabinet (it’s now 16 men and 15 women, including Mr. Trudeau), and boost its representation in cabinet from the Atlantic region by one person.
“When you win every seat in a region, I think there’s an expectation that the government is going to reward you for that, and I think that might be part of it,” he said.
Chris Gray, a lobbyist with Temple Scott Associates, agreed that Ms. Foote’s departure was the starting point of this shuffle, and the new appointments of Mr. O’Regan and Ms. Petitpas Taylor allowed it remain close to having gender parity and not lose representation from Newfoundland and Labrador.
“I think Mr. O’Regan brings a fresh face to the veterans affairs file—a young and diligent Member of Parliament from Newfoundland who will bring his strong work ethic to that file,” Mr. Gray said.
–With files from Derek Abma
The Hill Times