Justin Trudeau begins his bold experiment in 'government by cabinet'

Remember the number 18, Chris Hall writes. That's the number of cabinet ministers who are first-time MPs and some are new to politics altogether. Justin Trudeau has clearly put a premium on real-life experience. We will have to see if that pays off.

Remember the number 18 - that's the number of cabinet ministers who are first-time MPs

A little borrowed, a lot new. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a news conference with his cabinet after they were sworn-in at Rideau Hall Wednesday. His will be a government by cabinet, Trudeau said. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

The small group made its way slowly up the long, curving driveway leading to Rideau Hall, smiling and waving at the people lining the route.

This group — men and women totalling 30 in all — included new Canadians and members of the first peoples of this land, a woman who is just 30 years old, and three men who have reached the age when most Canadians retire.

At the front, the man responsible for bringing them all together: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with his wife, Sophie Grégoire.

Trudeau had hand-picked each one with a singularity of purpose that he described candidly in his first remarks to those reporters and onlookers who had just endured five hours outside as he and this Liberal cabinet were sworn in.

"It's an incredible pleasure for me to be here today before you to present to Canada a cabinet that looks like Canada."

And so cabinet should. Canada is as diverse as any nation on this globe, but its national governments have been much less so.

That's not to say other governments lacked members from diverse backgrounds. The previous Conservative government had a number of ministers from under-represented communities.

But no federal government has had this many. And certainly no prime minister has made such a point of pointing that out.

For justice minister, Trudeau chose Jody Wilson-Raybould, a member of the We Wai Kai Nation.

Another of his ministers, Maryam Monsef, just 30 years of age, fled Afghanistan as a child with members of her family to escape the Taliban. She becomes the minister of democratic institutions.

There are five ministers of South Asian descent. There are two with disabilities.

And yes, there are 15 women and 15 men, not including Trudeau, although gender parity is only part of the story. Women also hold senior positions, among them Chrystia Freeland in Trade, Wilson-Raybould in Justice and Catherine McKenna in the newly-renamed Environment and Climate Change.

New to politics

Want another interesting number? Eighteen.

That's the number of his cabinet ministers who are first-time MPs. Some of them are new to politics altogether.

In making his selections, Trudeau clearly gave considerable weight to experience outside of Parliament.

Jody Wilson-Raybould, Canada's new minister of justice and attorney general, is congratulated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Wednesday. A regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, Wilson-Raybould has worked as a Crown prosecutor in Vancouver but is a rookie MP. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

At the same time, he handed many of the most sensitive files to those with the most political experience, including John McCallum and Ralph Goodale — two of the aforementioned senior citizens.

As the minister of the renamed Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, McCallum will be the lead in delivering on the Liberals' commitment to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year.

Goodale, as the new public safety minister, will be expected to introduce the amendments to the Conservatives' anti-terror law, known as Bill C-51, to repeal what the party platform called "the most problematic elements."

"It's a huge responsibility," Goodale told reporters after a brief, first meeting of cabinet. He acknowledged the learning curve is steep even for a seasoned politician like him who was first elected in 1974, before some of his new cabinet colleagues were even born.

"Mr. Trudeau made it clear in the election campaign that Canadians expect their government to keep them safe, in the physical sense, and to respect their values and civil liberties," Goodale said. "It's finding that critical balance that will be extremely important."

No answers yet

Other ministers were equally careful in what they said in leaving cabinet. Most came in small groups, perhaps because there's safety in numbers when encountering a gang of quote-starved journalists.

To a person they spoke of the need to be briefed on their new duties in advance of Parliament's return Dec. 3. To a person they sidestepped direct questions about the party's campaign commitments

Exhibit one: Trade Minister Freeland when asked how the new government would deal with the recently negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership.

"We just formed government today. We are all incredibly excited, incredibly honoured, and very aware of our heavy responsibilities."

Exhibit two: New Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan when asked about withdrawing Canadian jets from the bombing mission against ISIS fighters in Iraq.

New Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan Harjit Sajjan is a retired lieutenant-colonel and a combat veteran who also spent 11 years with the Vancouver Police as a detective with the gang squad. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"I'm very enthusiastic to actually talk to the deputy minister and to actually learn about the file in order to make an informed decision."

Clearly the plan was to have no mistakes on this first day, no words uttered that any reporter will feel the need, or the urge to throw back at them some time down the road.

But just as clearly Trudeau is willing to let his cabinet ministers do the talking on their files.

His government won't be a one-man show, a frequent criticism of how the Conservatives operated under Stephen Harper when few ministers had a licence to speak, and many if not most of the major announcements came from the prime minister himself.

Trudeau made the same point earlier in the day, as he met the crowds at Rideau Hall.

"This is going to be a period of slight adjustment for a number of people in the political world in Canada," he said, "because government by cabinet is back."


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998. Follow him on Twitter: @chrishallcbc


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