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Parliamentary secretary shuffle coming before House returns, insiders predict big changes

By Rachel Aiello      

PMO says 'there will be an update on parliamentary secretaries' before Jan. 30. Sources say as many as 10 new faces could be shuffled in.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pictured at a national caucus meeting on the Hill. Liberal insiders are predicting a large parliamentary secretary shuffle before the House resumes, possibly this week. Some say it's an effort to keep the caucus engaged. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is preparing to shuffle his parliamentary secretaries following a cabinet shakeup last week and insiders say the changes coming could impact a majority of the PS positions.

Right now there are 33 parliamentary secretaries, with two vacancies to be filled: parliamentary secretary for International Development and La Francophonie, and parliamentary secretary for Finance. These positions were held, respectively, by Karina Gould (Burlington, Ont.), now the new Democratic Institutions minister, and Francois-Philippe Champagne, (St. Maurice-Champlain, Que.), now International Trade minister, who were both promoted to cabinet last week.

Sources said as many as 10 new parliamentary secretaries could be brought, 10 others dropped, and 10 shuffled into new PS positions.

“It wouldn’t surprise me that it would be quite a few,” said Earnscliffe principal and former Liberal staffer André Albinati, who said it would be in line with the strategy of renewal seen with the Jan. 10 cabinet shuffle.

However, others offered more subdued predictions.

“We’re expecting to see some modest changes, but you never know, it could be bigger changes. … We all serve at the pleasure of the prime minister,” said one current parliamentary secretary, speaking on a not-for-attribution basis.

When the parliamentary secretaries were appointed in December 2015, under the Parliament of Canada Act, they were given maximum 12-month terms with the option for renewal. In early December 2016, an order-in-council extended the appointments until Jan. 27, 2017, as the positions were being reviewed.

With Jan. 27 as the end of their term extensions, Cameron Ahmed, press secretary to Prime Minister Trudeau (Papineau, Que.), told The Hill Times “there will be an update on parliamentary secretaries before the House resumes,” which is scheduled for Jan. 30. Mr. Ahmed would not comment on how many MPs could be impacted by the shuffle.

Compass Rose principal and former Liberal staffer Jacquie LaRocque told The Hill Times in an email:With the diversity of talent to be assigned and the amount of work to do, including many emerging issues and files, yes, there will be a lot of change. At the same time, there is an increasing need to look to [the election in] 2019 and it will be all hands on deck starting very soon.”

Liberals say the focus of the PS shuffle will be on keeping the caucus attentive and engaged and allowing more MPs the chance to see what it’s like to have additional responsibilities. Performance and ability to collaborate are other factors as well. The shuffle could also reflect changes some current parliamentary secretaries would like to see to their own placements.

Others may want to step out altogether to focus on other issues, like riding work in projected tight 2019 races. Also, as with the cabinet changes, the need to fill roles with people who have certain skills to get a job done is a factor, like pushing a bill through, is a consideration.

“The prime minister has shown, whether it was dealing with the Senate or in the recent shuffle, he’s not necessarily sentimental. It’s about who is going to do the best job. … Not everybody was road tested,” said Environics’ senior vice-president of government relations and former Liberal staffer Greg MacEachern.

In this government, some parliamentary secretaries have been given additional responsibilities, like Bill Blair (Scarborough Southwest, Ont.), one of two parliamentary secretaries to Justice Minister Jody Wilson Raybould (Vancouver Granville, B.C.). Mr. Blair has been put in charge of the government’s marijuana legislation. As well, Randy Boissonnault (Edmonton Centre, Alta.), who is the parliamentary secretary for Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly (Ahuntsic-Cartierville, Que.) and in the fall took on the additional role of the government’s LGBTQ2 special adviser.

“It’s my understanding that the senior staff at PMO are trying to get a deeper understanding of what all of those projects are, to see where people are and what they’re doing, and then look at the decisions that need to be made in terms of moving people around. … I think you’ll see some people stay in some of their places, I think you’ll see some shifting around … and I think you’ll see some new faces at the table,” said Bluesky Strategies’ principal and Liberal pundit Susan Smith.

As it stands with 30 people in cabinet (including the prime minister), 33 parliamentary secretaries, 21 Liberal committee chairs, one whip, and one speaker, that leaves 96 of the 182 Liberal MPs without any additional roles.

“The Liberals have a very deep caucus. The talent that’s in the backbenches is very deep and I think the prime minister is blessed and cursed with lots of choice and lots of talent because there are only so many spots to go around,” said Ms. Smith.

Parliamentary secretaries receive an additional $16,600 on top of their $170,400 MP salary.

The work of a parliamentary secretary includes speaking for the minister when they are not available, both in the House of Commons and in public for announcements at home, abroad, and to the media; advancing the legislative program of their minister; and acting as a caucus liaison for the minister.

Typically these positions don’t carry a lot of decision-making power. They are not members of cabinet, parliamentary secretaries do not attend cabinet meetings, and do not have regular access to cabinet documents.

Liberal prime minister Paul Martin did a large shuffle in 2004 when about 10 parliamentary secretaries changed, and did some smaller adjustments later on. Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, over his 10 years in power, shuffled his parliamentary secretaries a handful of times, but each typically impacted a relatively small number of MPs.

Some sources cautioned against making changes for cosmetic reasons or to share the wealth rather than performance.

“We, as a party, need to be careful with our obsession on generational change. Age and experience really do matter, and with the current headlines, it is an example of where that experience could come in handy,” said one Liberal lobbyist.

One former MP who has experience as a parliamentary secretary voiced concerns that those that could be getting moved out will suffer potential career harm unnecessarily if, as some are saying, it’s not about demoting poor performers, but rather giving others a kick at the can.

“It’s a self-inflicted wound. … Regardless of how you try to spin this, the opposing political forces are going to view this as ‘you aren’t up to the job,’ ” the source said, adding that there’s concern the PMO doesn’t have proper respect for caucus.

“They got the equation wrong. If you don’t win those individual seats, you’re not in government.”

However, others argued that the roster of parliamentary secretaries is a “bubble” concern and not something likely to win or lose an election.

Among the names being thrown around as likely to become parliamentary secretaries are Steven MacKinnon (Gatineau, Que), Marco Mendicino (Eglinton-Lawrence, Ont.), Will Amos (Pontiac, Que.), and Francis Scarpaleggia (Lac-Saint-Louis, Que.).

Others on the backbench pointed to as making good impressions are Raj Grewal (Brampton East, Ont), Ruby Sahota (Brampton North, Ont.), Sherry Romando (Longueuil-Charles-LeMoyne, Que.), and Francesco Sorbara (Vaughan-Woodbridge, Ont).

With a cabinet retreat scheduled for Calgary on Jan. 23 and 24, one source said they’re anticipating the shuffle will happen sometime before that.

As well, The Hill Times has learned the winter Liberal caucus-wide retreat has been postponed until after the parliamentary secretary shuffle, and after the House resumes.

“There’s just been a cabinet shuffle. There’s a lot of significant things on the go,” said Ms. Smith as to whether the timing is connected to the coming parliamentary secretary restructuring. She mentioned March as a possibility.


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