The Liberal cabinet has been sworn in at Rideau Hall, and members are already headed to Parliament Hill to get to work implementing the ambitious agenda promised by Prime Minister Trudeau during the election. At the same time, journalists, political scientists, news junkies, and hangers-on are learning new names and seeing new faces as the country processes these appointments.
As with any cabinet, there are sure to be some individuals who flourish and some who fail. But on day one of their ministry, the collection is an impressive, though slightly unorthodox, one. Which is nice. I’m cautiously optimistic.
The change cabinet
Staffing portfolios with competent ministers is essential for the success of a government. For one, a prime minister wants his ministers to successfully carry out their mandate, executing the policy agenda he sets. He also desperately wants them to avoid screwing up. The gaffes, scandals, and failures of ministers are distracting for a prime minister and his government; they not only undermine the agenda, they can also severely hurt chances at re-election (recall, for instance, the sponsorship scandal of the early 2000s).
Cabinet appointments also send a message. The gender, ethnic, religious, and regional balance of the cabinet serves to indicate something about the government’s priorities and approach to governance. Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet appointments seem to indicate that he has chosen a different approach than his predecessors. This group is fairly young and quite diverse, and the sorts of figures occupying a few key cabinet spots such as justice, defence, and environment, which I’ll discuss below, suggests that the “Welcome to the 1980s” (i.e. old, white, male) approach taken by Trudeau pére will be replaced by a new “Welcome to 2015” approach by Trudeau fils.
The watchwords of the day are openness, transparency, diversity, and change. Those are encouraging—and potentially fluffy—commitments. Substantively, however, Trudeau’s repeated (stated) commitment to government by cabinet—allowing the cabinet significant input into how the government is run and what sorts of policies and laws are pursued—is a contrast to the last decade of prime minister-centric government under Harper.
Indeed, if Prime Minister Trudeau stays true to his word and approaches government as a cabinet affair, we could see this ministry bring us back to an approach to governing that started to erode in the late 1960s when Pierre Trudeau began to centralize power in the hands of the prime minster and his office.
For the first time in Canadian history, the federal cabinet refleces gender parity. As promised, Trudeau has appointed the same number of women as men: 15/15. Leading up to today, some had decried this policy as an affirmative action public relations move that would see unqualified women take oaths. And yet, I can’t identify a single member of the cabinet, of either gender, who doesn’t seem to have good reason to be at the table at the moment.
Trudeau’s first cabinet balances gender and regional diversity as was promised and expected, but it also includes ethnic and national diversity, and youth. Jody Wilson-Raybould is one of three British Columbia members of Parliament appointed to cabinet. A former regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, and a member of the We Wai Kai Nation, Raybould-Wilson is Attorney General and Minister of Justice.
Maryam Monsef, at 30 years old, is Minister of Democratic Institutions. She’s an Afghan refugee who came to Canada in the 1990s, to my hometown of Peterborough. She’s now in charge of keeping the Liberal promise to make the 2015 election the last election carried out under the archaic first-past-the-post electoral system.
Harjit Sajjan is Minister of Defence. Sajjan is the MP for Vancouver South, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, and a former Vancouver Police Department detective. He was also the first Sikh in Canada to be placed in command of a regiment.
Catherine McKenna, the only Ottawa MP in cabinet, will take on the environment and climate change portfolio. She ran one of the best campaigns of the election, defeated NDP giant Paul Dewar, and helped her riding, Ottawa-Centre, reach top voter turnout in the country at 82.2 per cent.
Stéphane Dion, who has been in Parliament since 1996 and who was briefly the leader of the Liberal Party is minister of foreign affairs—a choice that comes as a surprise to many. Dion’s story is one of service and perseverance, and it’s encouraging to see a man of his intellect in an important cabinet spot.
Also surprising is the inclusion of John McCallum as minister for immigration, citizenship, and refugees. McCallum is a long-time Liberal MP, but he comes from the Toronto area, where the Liberal Party has a number of seats. McCallum was up against the fact that he comes from an MP-dense area that tends to be overrepresented in Canadian politics. It could be that Trudeau wanted to ensure that there were a few firm hands on the tiller in his cabinet—and McCallum is thus a stability choice for a tricky portfolio.
The need for some experience around the table would also explain, in part, the selection of Ralph Goodale, the only Liberal MP from Saskatchewan, as minister of public safety and preparedness and Lawrence MacAulay, from PEI, as minister for agriculture and agri-food. Both men, and McCallum, were around during the Chrétien days and served in cabinet back then.
Some surprise omissions from the cabinet include Andrew Leslie, a retired lieutenant-general with the Canadian Forces (CF) and an Ottawa-area MP. Two Vancouver-area MPs and long-time Liberal Party stalwarts, Hedy Fry and Joyce Murray, were also left out. Ditto for Robert-Falcon Oullette, another CF veteran, and member of MP for Winnipeg-Centre, having defeated prominent New Democrat Pat Martin, and Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, MP for West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country, who was lauded as a star Liberal candidate during the election.
The economic caveat
As progressive, diverse, and changey (consider “changey” coined as a term!) as this cabinet is, the economic portfolios have been given to fairly centrist or centre-right figures. Scott Brison, an MP from Nova Scotia, is President of the Treasury Board. Brison is a former Progressive Conservative.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau, International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland, (despite being a long term advocate for reducing income inequality), and Jean-Yves Duclos, Minister of Families, Children, and Social Development are likely to be found closer to the centre than the centre-left when it comes to economic policy.
These choices could signal that while the Trudeau government is committed to middle-class tax cuts, raising tax rates on the top earners, and running short-term deficits to fund infrastructure, those in charge of developing and implementing these promises aren’t going to stray too far from the fiscal-policy shore. We shall see.
Full steam ahead
Prime Minister Trudeau has made a number of promises (184, to be precise) that he is now under immense pressure to keep. He has set an ambitious agenda. But he’s also appointed a distinguished cabinet—one that, at first glance, appears competent enough to deliver on those promises. Those interested in keeping track of Trudeau’s promises can do so with this nifty tool: the Trudeau Metre. I, for one, will be keeping close watch.
David Moscrop is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of British Columbia, and a pundit whose work has appeared in the National Post, Maclean’s, the Globe and Mail, and other outlets. You can follow him on Twitter: @david_moscrop.