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Opinion

PM Trudeau ought to go back to government by cabinet

By Andrew Caddell      

Were I advising him, I would suggest he keep a low profile for now, mend fences, and delegate effectively.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives at a Liberal caucus meeting on April 3, the day after he booted former ministers Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott from caucus. The prime minister is least effective when he tries to be the sole decider, says columnist Andrew Caddell. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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OTTAWA—Back in 2013, the Liberal Party of Canada was looking for a new executive director. I applied and was on the short list, but not hired. Nonetheless, it was a good experience: I was able to offer my own ideas to the interview board about the way the party and its then-new leader could promote themselves to Canadians.

I made a number of recommendations, including a council to advise the party on youth issues, the need to empower the caucus to bring about renewal, and a drive to recruit community leaders and professionals to be candidates in 2015. I recommended an autobiography of the new leader, Justin Trudeau, to counter the public’s presumptions about him. Finally, I compared him to the “great communicator,” former United States president Ronald Reagan, suggesting he use those skills to unite Canadians, while delegating power to ministers.

Although the comparison to Reagan, a Republican, rankled the loyalists around the table, I pointed out both then-Conservative leader Stephen Harper and Tom Mulcair, the NDP leader at the time, had approached politics with a desire to divide and conquer, appealing only to their demographics. I felt Trudeau could be a uniter, not a divider.

While I will never know if any of my ideas saw the light of day, similar ones emerged. And Trudeau was elected because he was not Harper, that is to say not a detached, insensitive, centralizing control freak. Trudeau spoke openly about wanting to bring back government by cabinet, and, to that end, he recruited top-ranked candidates, like Jody Wilson-Raybould and Dr. Jane Philpott.

But, once sworn in, he encountered the cumbersome federal decision-making process. And he was sucked into the vortex of the hundreds of people who work in the Prime Minister’s Office and Privy Council Office.

Now, in 2019, setting aside the “he said, she said” of the SNC-Lavalin issue and the mind- numbing arguments on both sides, there are lessons to be learned.

First of all, the prime minister is least effective when he tries to be the sole decider. His best instincts were always to let others carry the heavy weight. In fact, he described his role as PM to former ethics commissioner Mary Dawson as somewhat “ceremonial in nature.”

For a prime minister whose task it was to rally people together, I think most Canadians did not want Trudeau to be the only voice at the cabinet table.

However, power abhors a vacuum, and rather than giving more authority to ministers, it was displaced to his advisers and the clerk of the Privy Council.

From his inarticulate testimony at the Justice Committee and the notorious recorded phone call, one gets the sense Michael Wernick was the PM’s deputy far more than he was head of the public service. As head of the public service, he should have backed up the decision of the director of public prosecutions on SNC-Lavalin. Instead, he acted as if he himself were the PM, giving direction to a minister.

In the same vein, former principal secretary Gerry Butts identified the members of the Justice Committee as his “colleagues.” They aren’t: they are elected, he was not.

These two, Butts and Wernick, failed to serve the PM when they kept power to themselves.

Former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould and former Treasury Board president Jane Philpott, both of whom resigned from the Trudeau cabinet amid the SNC-Lavalin affair, speak with reporters in the House of Commons foyer on April 3. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

So, the question remains: how does Trudeau deal with this annus horribilis as the October general election approaches? If a week is a long time in politics, as former British PM Harold Wilson once said, the six months to the election is an eternity.

While people seem to despise Trudeau on social media, I have found him engaging in person. He would be the first to admit he is more like his grandfather, long-ago minister James Sinclair, than his father, Pierre. Smart, but not a genius. Kind, and not aloof. Compared to either the bland Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer or the error-prone NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Trudeau is a superior campaigner.

Were I advising him, I would suggest he keep a low profile for now, mend fences, and delegate effectively. He should meet with groups of people who like and support him, and make occasional good-news announcements himself while passing on the bad news to his ministers. And he should let them make decisions.

This week, I will meet with old friends and colleagues from the government of Trudeau père. There will be war stories of how we dealt with the challenges of the day. While this is a different time, we had a decent track record, with a controversial leader who was disliked, and yet who won almost every election he contested. This is a different Trudeau for a different era, but I would not bet against him in October. In that sense, he is his father’s son.

Andrew Caddell is retired from Global Affairs Canada, where he was a senior policy adviser. He previously worked as an adviser to Liberal governments. He is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a principal of QIT Canada. He can be reached at pipson52@hotmail.com.

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