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Trudeau’s cabinet makeover largely a reaction to U.S. political ripples: expert

By Tim Naumetz      

NDP MPs raise concerns over whether rookie MPs on major files like Democratic Institutions and International Trade will be able to make any real policy progress.

Chrystia Freeland, formerly the minister of International Trade, will now be Canada's minister of Foreign Affairs, while retaining control of Canada-U.S. trade relations. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shook up key positions in his cabinet on Tuesday as he prepared for the new realities of a Donald Trump presidency by naming former International Trade minister Chrystia Freeland as Canada’s new Foreign Affairs minister, while, in an unconventional move, also announcing that the climbing cabinet star would remain in charge of trade relations with the United States.

In the shuffle, he also appointed two rookie MPs to key cabinet positions—Democratic Institutions and International Trade—causing NDP MPs to question whether the new faces will be able to make any real policy progress.

Mr. Trudeau sidestepped a suggestion on Tuesday that he has allowed president-elect Donald Trump to at least influence, if not dictate, his management of his government.

“The fact is, we are always going to be expected by Canadians to adjust and to put our best team forward in dealing with the important issues that matter to Canadians, whether it be the relationship with the United States, whether it be the relationship with China, whether it be how we engage with Europe through some essential times as we look towards ratification of CETA,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters. “There are a broad range of ways and opportunities to serve this government in a large team and that’s exactly what we are putting forward.”

When asked why it was so important to have Ms. Freeland retain control of Canada-U.S. trade relations as Foreign Affairs minister, Mr. Trudeau said, “One of the things that we’ve seen from president-elect Trump is that he very much takes a trade and job lens to his engagements with the world in international diplomacy. And it makes sense for the person who is responsible for foreign relations with the United States to also have the ability and the responsibility to engage with issues such as NAFTA and the broad range of trade issues that we’ll be facing with our friends and neighbours south of the border.”

Tuesday’s shuffle saw the departure of Mr. Dion from cabinet, as well as John McCallum, who was minister of Immigration but has now been recommended by Mr. Trudeau as Canada’s new ambassador to China.

Reportedly, Mr. Dion was offered ambassadorship in both France and Germany, but is said to be still considering his options.

Ms. Freeland’s assumption of, arguably one of the most important cabinet posts, only 10 days before president-elect Donald Trump takes office reveals that Mr. Trudeau, his closest advisers, and cabinet ministers recognized a need for dramatic action before the inauguration, said EKOS Research pollster Frank Graves.

“The somewhat shocking U.S. election has thrown a lot of the assumptions of the government askew, and given that, by far, this is the most relationship of any that we have in the planet, this is something where they want to make sure they were deploying the best talent in a way that would maximize their opportunities for success, or at least avoid any huge problems with what’s going to be a very unpredictable new administration in the United States,” Mr. Graves said in an interview.

“She is one of the most capable, if not most capable, performers,” Mr. Graves said, in reference to Ms. Freeland’s success in reaching a free-trade agreement between Canada and the European Union in 2016. The “last hurdles” of implementing that deal will be left to her successor, Liberal MP François-Philippe Champagne (Saint-Maurice—Champlain, Que.), who won his first seat in the House of Commons in the 2015 election and, until Tuesday, was parliamentary secretary for Finance Minister Bill Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.).

“A great portion of their agenda, which was based on an assumption of a Democratic Hillary Clinton government—which was everybody though was going to happen—it’s all been placed akimbo, and that’s the challenge,” said Mr. Graves. “It just all of a sudden ‘whoa, who would have expected this?’”

Rookie MPs to tackle major files

NDP MP Tracey Ramsey (Essex, Ont.) expressed surprise that Mr. Trudeau would put an inexperienced MP in charge of international trade, despite his private sector experience as a trade expert and lawyer, but made the comments to The Hill Times before Mr. Trudeau announced Ms. Freeland’s unusual dual role when it comes to Canada-U.S. trade relations. However, she also noted that other major trade issues, including China’s exports of low-priced steel to Canada and other countries, are also on the horizon.

Former Employment and Labour minister Mary Ann Mihychuk (Kildonan—St. Paul, Man.) also lost her position in the shuffle. Ms. Mihychuk, a former cabinet minister in the government of Manitoba, already had some of her biggest files handed to Jean-Yves Duclos (Québec, Que.), minister of Families, Children and Social Development, in August. She will now serve as a backbench MP.

After a rocky term as Mr. Trudeau’s minister of Democratic Institutions and the minister responsible for electoral reform, rookie Ontario MP Maryam Monsef (Peterborough—Kawartha, Ont.) was appointed as the minister for Status of Women, replacing Liberal MP Patty Hajdu (Thunder Bay—Superior North, Ont.) who took Ms. Mihychuk’s post in Labour.

Liberal MP Ahmed Hussen (York South — Weston, Ont.) who immigrated to Canada from Somalia in 1993 as a refugee when he was 16-years-old, was named Citizenship, Refugees and Immigration minister to succeed Mr. McCallum. Mr. Hussen is lawyer who specialized in criminal defence, immigration, and human rights law. When he was first elected in the 2015 general election, he became the first Somali-Canadian MP, although he had some political experience from once working as an assistant to former Ontario Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty, when he was leader of the official opposition.

Mr. Trudeau also named 29-year-old Liberal MP Karina Gould (Burlington, Ont.) to succeed Ms. Monsef as minister for Democratic Institutions.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen (Skeena-Bulkley Valley, B.C.), one of the two NDP MPs on the Special House Committee on Electoral Reform, expressed hope that Ms. Gould was mandated to follow through with Mr. Trudeau’s commitment to establish a new federal electoral system by the 2019 election.

“I often thought Ms. Monsef was handed this strange task of essentially trying to find a nice way to break a promise, and use terms in a positive tone while doing something negative and cynical,” Mr. Cullen said. “If it’s just rearranging the deck chairs and yet still trying to kill this commitment, then that will be just cynicism on top of cynicism.”

But, he added, “I’m hopeful. I think this move shows the strategy they were taking failed and they need a new one, I hope it’s a re-set of policy, not just personality,” said Mr. Cullen.

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