Trudeau’s Tightrope – Building a Cabinet that Can Survive Minority Politics

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has unveiled his new Cabinet.  Major key themes for the government include:

  1. A focus on economic anxiety and an attempt to address related regional tensions
  2. A policy focus on the interplay between climate and energy issues
  3. A recognition that Ontario and Quebec remain key strongholds (27 of 36 Ministers are from these two provinces)

In 2015, Prime Minister Trudeau arrived at Rideau Hall with a majority government. This time, Trudeau returns to Parliament with a minority government and a largely different group of Premiers leading the provinces and territories – a group that is more conservative, more combative, and more assertive of their role vis-à-vis the federal government. These factors played an instrumental role in the Cabinet that was unveiled today and will inform the decisions of the new government.

The new Cabinet will have to grapple with a federation that has been gripped by escalating regional and economic tensions over the past four years. Underlying these issues is a growing sense of economic uncertainty across the country, primarily seen through the complexities around the need to grow Canada’s energy sector while taking demonstrable action in the fight against climate change. While great attention will be paid to the environment and intergovernmental relations roles in this Cabinet, the linchpin that will keep the federation together will be government action on the economy and trying to avoid a recession.

Despite strong job growth numbers and several trade agreements signed under the Liberals, there remains a deep-rooted sense of anxiety across the country that the decade-long positive economic trajectory will end abruptly. To protect against this sentiment, the Prime Minister has tapped key confidants, including personal friends, to take over roles that are certain to be flashpoints between the federal government and the premiers over the lifespan of this minority Parliament.

Download our analysis of Trudeau’s new cabinet and what this means for organizations engaging government.

Regional Considerations

The Trudeau government was widely criticized in 2015 for not appointing regional ministers who could bring forward regional concerns to the Cabinet table. This criticism, combined with the absence of Liberal-held seats in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Nunavut and a revitalized Bloc Québécois, demanded a response from the transition team. To make matters worse, the loss of Saskatchewan stalwart Ralph Goodale in the election provided additional challenges in terms of western representation that needed to be addressed.

In both cases, the Liberals have taken action to try and address these issues. Chrystia Freeland has been promoted from Foreign Affairs to Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs.  Freeland will also maintain responsibility for Canada-US relations. The government will rely on her leadership to navigate relationships with provincial and territorial governments and attempt to remedy economic hardship in western Canada. Despite representing a downtown Toronto riding, Freeland was born and raised in Alberta and the Liberals will attempt to use this as a demonstration of understanding western concerns.

An additional western voice will be former Trade Minister and Winnipeg MP Jim Carr, who has been asked to serve as a “Senior Advisor” on western issues. Carr is currently facing medical challenges and a full Cabinet role may have been a difficult role for him to fulfill.

The Prime Minister has also added a strong Quebec contingent to his Cabinet, with 10 ministers from la belle province. In addition to his role as Government House Leader, Pablo Rodriguez has also been named as the Prime Minister’s Quebec Lieutenant.  Future Liberal electoral growth will, in part, be driven by suburban communities in Quebec and the surrounding area of Montreal. As Quebec lieutenant, Rodriguez will play a crucial role overseeing day-to-day political issues in Quebec, with the goal of laying the foundation for Liberal seat gains next election. Rodriguez will also be charged with informing the Liberal response to Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet and Premier François Legault. This work could even include a challenge to Quebec’s Bill 21, which bans public servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols while at work.  Other key ministers from Quebec include Francois-Philippe Champagne, David Lametti, Jean-Yves Duclos, Marc Garneau, Steven Guilbeault, Melanie Joly, and Marc Miller.

In the 2019 election, the Greater Toronto Area and 905 area code delivered big wins for the Liberals.  The Prime Minister reflected that result with the appointment and promotion of several GTA Ministers including Chrystia Freeland, Bill Morneau, Navdeep Bains, Carolyn Bennett, Anita Anand, Mary Ng, Ahmed Hussen, Marco Mendicino, Bill Blair, and Deb Schulte.

Climate Change, Infrastructure, and Energy

Over the past two elections, the Liberals have sought to redefine Canada’s political landscape through a climate lens. The issue is balancing the two issues of aggressive action on climate change while still moving Canada’s energy to market.  The Liberals will attempt to balance interests by advancing climate-friendly policies while also ensuring that the Trans-Mountain Pipeline is built.

Jonathan Wilkinson, a B.C. native and the former Fisheries Minister and Parliamentary Secretary for Environment, has been named the new Minister of Environment and Climate Change. His predecessor, Catherine McKenna, has been moved to Infrastructure and Communities. Infrastructure can be a challenging file for any minister, no matter what political stripe. The portfolio requires the ability to negotiate political priorities while ensuring that there are no political “boondoggles.”  McKenna is expected to put a climate focus on infrastructure delivery.

Natural resource issues will continue to be a challenge for the Liberal government. With Freeland in her role as Deputy Prime Minister and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister, Newfoundlander and former broadcaster, Seamus O’Regan, has been appointed as Natural Resources Minister.

Indigenous Peoples

In 2015-2019, the Trudeau government prioritized Indigenous reconciliation. While the government made progress on matters such as reducing the number of communities on boil-water advisories, Indigenous leaders have made it clear they remain dissatisfied and divided on several issues. This includes energy and resource development, the definition of “free, prior and informed consent” through the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Persons (UNDRIP), and the appeal of a court decision during the election campaign around the treatment of Indigenous children and child welfare.

By appointing Carolyn Bennett as Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, Prime Minister Trudeau is opting to continue with the government’s existing approach to relationship-building with Indigenous Peoples.  The appointment of Montreal lawyer and long-time Trudeau friend, Marc Miller, as Minister of Indigenous Services demonstrates the on-going importance of Indigenous reconciliation to the government.

The Prime Minister also appointed Dan Vandal of Manitoba as a standalone Northern Affairs minister. His decision to leave the two Northern Liberal MPs that represent the country’s territories outside of Cabinet will likely not be popular in the North.

The Challenge of a Minority Parliament

In the last Parliament, the Trudeau government had a distracted approach to its management of the House of Commons and the legislative calendar. While a majority government can muddle its way through the day-to-day affairs of the House of Commons, that is no longer possible in a minority situation. Functionally, this means the Liberals will always need the support of at least one other party to pass legislation. Practically, it also means that the government is likely to rely more on regulatory changes than actual legislation to move their agenda forward.

In this minority context, the positions of Government House Leader and Chief Government Whip are very important. The Government House Leader is responsible for managing the day-to-day agenda and negotiating with the other parties to ensure the government’s legislation moves forward. The Chief Government Whip is responsible for ensuring they have enough people in the Commons to win the votes, which means that ministerial travel will be curtailed when the House is in session.

Today’s appointment of Pablo Rodriguez, a personal and trusted confidant of the Prime Minister, as Government House Leader indicates the importance of proper management of the legislative agenda. Mark Holland continues as Chief Government Whip.

Minority parliaments also provide opportunities for Canadians with important issues to move them forward through Private Members’ Business and committee work in both the House of Commons and the Senate.

List of Ministers 

Get StrategyCorp’s overview of the new federal cabinet.

Name Ministry Province
Justin Trudeau Prime Minister QC
Chrystia Freeland Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs ON
Bill Morneau Finance ON
François-Philippe Champagne Foreign Affairs QC
David Lametti Justice and Attorney General QC
Harjit Sajjan National Defence BC
Catherine McKenna Infrastructure and Communities ON
Pablo Rodriguez Government House Leader and Quebec Lieutenant QC
Jonathan Wilkinson Environment and Climate Change BC
Seamus O’Regan Natural Resources NL
Bill Blair Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness ON
Steven Guilbeault Canadian Heritage QC
Jean-Yves Duclos President of the Treasury Board QC
Joyce Murray Digital Government BC
Navdeep Bains Innovation, Science and Industry ON
Marc Garneau Transport QC
Patty Hajdu Health ON
Mary Ng Small Business, Export Promotion and International Trade ON
Mélanie Joly Economic Development and Official Languages QC
Carolyn Bennett Crown-Indigenous Relations ON
Marc Miller Indigenous Services QC
Anita Anand Public Services and Procurement ON
Carla Qualtrough Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion BC
Bardish Chagger Diversity and Inclusion, and Youth ON
Filomena Tassi Labour ON
Marco Mendicino Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship ON
Ahmed Hussen Families, Children and Social Development ON
Lawrence MacAulay Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence PE
Marie-Claude Bibeau Agriculture and Agri-Food QC
Bernadette Jordan Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard NS
Karina Gould International Development ON
Dominic LeBlanc President of the Queen’s Privy Council NB
Diane Lebouthillier National Revenue QC
Deb Schulte Seniors ON
Dan Vandal Northern Affairs MB
Maryam Monsef Women and Gender Equality, and Rural Economic Development ON
Mona Fortier Middle Class Prosperity and Associate Minister of Finance ON

Breakdowns:

  • Total Ministers: 36
  • Gender parity: 18 women and 18 men
  • Provincial representation:
    • Ontario – 17
    • Quebec – 10
    • British Columbia – 4
    • Manitoba – 1
    • Atlantic – 4 (one from each province)

Cabinet Committee Structure

Much of the work done by Cabinet on a day-to-day basis is through Cabinet Committees, which meet more regularly than full Cabinet. Unlike in 2015, when the Trudeau government sought to demonstrate a shift from the Harper government’s committee structure, the Liberals have returned to a traditional architecture with the following Cabinet Committees:

  • Agenda, Results and Communications
  • Operations
  • Global Affairs and Public Security
  • Reconciliation
  • Economy and Environment
  • Health and Social Affairs
  • Treasury Board
  • Incident Response Group