Prime Minister Trudeau retooled his cabinet today to prepare for an intense fifteen months leading to the October 2019 federal election.
A government usually deals with two kinds of issues: those that are good for the party and should be emphasized in an election (swords); and those that provide defence for areas the government wants to contain (shields). Most of Trudeau’s cabinet changes addressed shield issues that need to be safely de-emphasized before the next election, with a few notable changes to increase attention to their sword issues.
The federal Liberals are taking care not to over-react to the defeat of the Wynne government in Ontario. Rather, their concern appears to be with their ability to get things done before the 2019 election with an increasing number of right-of-centre governments at the provincial level.
When the federal Liberals were first elected in 2015, only Saskatchewan stood in opposition to the Liberals’ broad agenda. Brian Pallister’s win in Manitoba and Doug Ford’s election in Ontario has expanded that opposition. Meanwhile, Jason Kenney’s anticipated election in Alberta in May 2019 could strengthen this trend further. Finally, the federal Liberals face the possibility of the Quebec Liberals losing to the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ). This means that in advance of the 2019 federal election, more than 50% of Canadians could be led by right-of-centre governments at the provincial level. Instead of collaboration on issues like the Canada Pension Plan enhancement, the federal Liberals would be faced with more arguments akin to the current one on carbon pricing.
To lead the federal voice in this delicate dance, Trudeau moved one of his most trusted, politically adept and street-wise Ministers to the intergovernmental portfolio. Dominic LeBlanc is a canny political operator who can think on his feet and find the political win in a complex file. The New Brunswick MP had been Fisheries Minister, and before that House Leader. He held his seat through the long march of the Liberals in opposition and third place. LeBlanc may wind up taking on a role similar to John Baird in the Harper administration, being deployed to tackle difficult political issues through diplomacy and tenacity.
Trade diversification was a central theme in today’s shuffle of Ministers Carr, Sohi and Champagne: Jim Carr moved from Natural Resources to Minister of International Trade Diversification, François-Philippe Champagne moved from International Trade to Infrastructure and Communities, and Amarjeet Sohi moved from Infrastructure and Communities to Natural Resources.
Aside from the practical necessity for Canada to find new trading partners after its largest has become unpredictable and hostile, there is value in the government being seen to devote more personnel to the trade file. With this shuffle, the Liberals appear to be trying to reinforce the message that they are taking trade seriously, and they are the safest option to handle Canada’s international interests.
The next election will be fought primarily in three battlefields that are the most populous blocks of potential swing seats in the country: the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area (GTHA), Quebec, and BC. Each of these battlefields got at least one new Minister to bolster the government’s communications and political operation in that area.
The Liberals are deploying three new Ministers in this key region.
- Former Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair will be taking a role in Cabinet; responsible for cannabis, border security, and organized crime reduction. Given that cannabis legalization is playing poorly in some communities – especially Quebec and among Chinese-Canadians – this is in part an attempt to double down on the issue as one of combatting organized crime instead of making access to cannabis easier. Blair’s appointment also strengthens the Liberals’ ability to defend against the Conservatives on crime. This is critical given the increase in shootings in Canadian cities this year, particularly in the Toronto area.
- Markham-Thornhill MP Mary Ng left the PMO to run in a by-election last winter and is now entering Cabinet as Minister of Small Business. Ng will serve as a key person for outreach to new Canadian voters in the GTHA. The addition of the Business Development Bank of Canada to the small business portfolio somewhat expands the importance of this role.
- Filomina Tassi becomes Minister of Seniors and places a Cabinet voice in Hamilton where the Liberals hope to be able to make gains over the NDP.
The Liberals are particularly interested in increasing their electoral fortunes in Quebec, where the implosion of the Bloc Quebecois is leaving a significant opening.
- Pablo Rodriguez becomes Minister of Heritage. The Montreal MP is a strong communicator and can sell the government’s agenda to Quebecers effectively.
- François-Philippe Champagne becomes Minister of Infrastructure. Previously the Minister of International Trade, Champagne is seen as a rising star in Cabinet and will be very effective at getting maximum PR value for the government’s significant infrastructure spending. Given the cooperative nature of infrastructure – and the increasingly hostile public relationship with several provinces – an ‘elbows up’ approach to getting credit for new construction will be important.
- Melanie Joly moves from Heritage to Tourism. The former Montreal mayoral candidate ran into serious problems selling culture policy in Quebec. Her new role allows her to continue to push the government’s economic messages elsewhere, but her primary political role will be to continue courting linguistic minority support outside Quebec as Official Languages Minister.
The west coast political scene has become considerably more complex since the last election. The NDP-Green coalition and the TMX purchase add new challenges in an area where the Liberals hope to expand their seat count.
- Jonathan Wilkinson from North Vancouver adds another BC voice to the Cabinet table as Fisheries and Oceans Minister. The role allows him to talk about jobs and the environment in a province where both are critical (and sometimes at odds).
- Carla Qualtrough, who has demonstrated competence in a tough portfolio that includes the Phoenix pay system, adds the Accessibility file to her Public Services and Procurement file. This is a file she held in her previous Ministerial role.