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Ministerial mandate letters to be revised following shuffle, says PMO

By Marco Vigliotti      

Mandate letters for ministers tasked with dealing with the U.S. will likely to be changed, say political analysts.

Chrystia Freeland was appointed foreign affairs minister as part of a cabinet shuffle earlier this month. The six ministers that assumed new portfolios as part of the shuffle will receive revised mandate letters, according to the prime minister's office. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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The six Liberal MPs that assumed new ministerial portfolios as part of an early January cabinet shuffle will receive revised mandate letters, The Hill Times has learned.

The Trudeau government broke with tradition in 2015 by releasing to the public the mandate letters provided to cabinet ministers. Those letters lay out what the ministers are expected to accomplish in their positions.

But in the fallout of the first major cabinet shuffle earlier this month, it was not immediately clear whether those assuming new ministerial responsibilities would be handed the mandate letters of their predecessors, or awarded new ones.

Cameron Ahmad, spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Office, confirmed to The Hill Times last week that the ministers would be given updated letters, though did not provide a timeline for when that would occur.

He also didn’t disclose, when asked, if the revised letters would be released publicly.

The Jan. 10 cabinet shuffle saw three new Liberal MPs elevated to cabinet, and three other ministers moved to different portfolios.

Following the shuffle, the Prime Minister’s Office changed some wording in the copies of the mandate letters available online. Names were removed from the top and replaced with the generic “Dear Minister” in the mandate letters for those assuming new cabinet responsibilities.

Mr. Ahmad didn’t detail what changes would be made to the letters. Some of the objectives in the letters have already been accomplished or are now obsolete. 

For example, then-immigration, refugees, and citizenship minister John McCallum (Markham-Thornhill, Ont.) was tasked in his mandate letter with helping to lead government-wide efforts to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada “in the coming months.”

This line remains in the mandate letter now tasked to his replacement, Ahmed Hussen (York South-Weston, Ont.), posted on the prime minister’s website.

The Liberals promised in the 2015 election campaign to bring 25,000 refugees to Canada by the end of the year, though the government only reached that mark in February 2016.

There were no apparent changes to the mandate letter for the fisheries and oceans minister after Dominic LeBlanc (Beauséjour, N.B.) assumed the portfolio from Hunter Tootoo (Nunavut) last spring. There were also no changes to the mandate letter for the government house leader when Bardish Chagger (Waterloo, Ont.) took over the position from Mr. LeBlanc in August.

Lobbyist Marc Desmarais, a senior strategist with National Public Relations and Liberal candidate in the 2015 election, said he didn’t anticipate major changes to the ministerial mandate letters, as they laid out a range of policy goals that could take a few years to achieve.

“Some of these letters are quite hefty, and they’ve got enough stuff for at least two years, maybe four,” he said.

“I think that they’ve set the course with the mandate letters.”

He said it took “a lot guts” on the part of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) to publicly detail what Canadians should expect to see from his government and cabinet, adding it set a precedent that would be tough for succeeding prime ministers to ignore.  

Claude Denis, a political science professor at the University of Ottawa, said he anticipated changes or additions to the mandate letters of ministers that will be dealing with the United States, as the Trudeau government adjusts to the new Trump administration.

“Considering all the talk about facing the Trump team…you would think that the mandate letters for anyone dealing with the U.S. would be changed,” he said.

Observers and media pundits have largely painted the appointment of Chrystia Freeland (University-Rosedale, Ont.) as foreign affairs minister, and the subsequent appointment of Liberal MP and retired Gen. Andrew Leslie (Orléans, Ont.) as her parliamentary secretary for U.S.-Canada relations, as a response to a Trump administration that’s expected to be more confrontational than its predecessor.  

Mr. Denis said it would “make sense” if the altered letters were again released publicly, though noted that he expected the ministers would also receive some “confidential instructions” from the prime minister.

Andrew Balfour, a vice-president with lobbyist shop Ensight, said he expected Ms. Freeland’s mandate letter to be “drastically different” because of the new U.S. administration, while the letters for the other ministers would likely only see minor changes.

He said it’s “normal” for some tweaks to be made to mandates after a shuffle, but didn’t believe it presaged major strategic changes.

Mr. Desmarais also said he didn’t believe the revised mandate letters would hint at any significant changes in strategy. 

It’s “natural” for prime ministers, he said, to evaluate their cabinets after a year in office, and see how they can make improvements. 

“It’s just minor tweaking,” he added.

mvigliotti@hilltimes.com

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