Politics·Analysis

As Trudeau shuffles his cabinet, which Liberals could use the profile boost at the ballot box?

With a cabinet shuffle in the works, a few Liberal parliamentary secretaries might find a higher profile helpful in what could be challenging re-election bids.

Being in cabinet can help an MP get re-elected, and a few Liberal parliamentary secretaries need the help

If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shuffles his cabinet this summer, there are a few parliamentary secretaries who could use the profile to help secure re-election in 2019. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to shuffle his cabinet this week — putting the final touches on the team he will lead into next year's federal election.

An informed source told CBC News late last week that the shuffle will come Wednesday.

Competence, regional representation and gender parity will play into any shuffle (although not necessarily in that order). But another question might come into play as well.

Does anyone not currently in cabinet need a promotion to have a shot at re-election in 2019?

It's common for governments to make some final adjustments before going into an election year. While most (if not all) of Trudeau's ministers are expected to run in the next election, ministers performing below expectations could be moved out to make room for more deserving MPs.

A few extra seats also could be squeezed in around the cabinet table if the prime minister wants to give some of his people a higher profile without sacrificing a sitting minister.

There is an electoral advantage to being in cabinet. Last month's provincial election in Ontario is a case in point: of the seven Liberal MPPs who avoided getting swept aside by the party's historic defeat, six of them were in former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne's outgoing cabinet — including Wynne herself. They held on to their seats while other Liberal MPPs who won by wider margins in the previous election fell by the wayside.

Cabinet minister stand-ins

The first place to look for possible new cabinet prospects is among the parliamentary secretaries — MPs who assist full ministers and often take their place in question period when the minister is not present. It's a good audition for the big job. There are 35 parliamentary secretaries in the Liberal caucus, in addition to the 30 ministers around the cabinet table.

The results of the 2015 election offer some guide to which of these parliamentary secretaries might be in need of a little boost at the ballot box.

Five parliamentary secretaries won their seats by less than five percentage points in 2015: Arif Virani (Multiculturalism), Celina Caesar-Chavannes (International Development), Kim Rudd (Natural Resources), Alaina Lockhart (Small Business and Tourism) and Jean Rioux (National Defence). 

Kim Rudd, parliamentary secretary to the minister of Natural Resources, won the Ontario riding of Northumberland–Peterborough South by a margin of 2.9 percentage points over the Conservatives in 2015. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

But the political landscape will be different in 2019. Rioux, for example, is the MP for the Quebec riding of Saint-Jean. It's a part of the province where either the New Democrats or the Bloc Québécois would be expected to be the Liberals' main competitors, but both parties have seen their support drop in the province. That makes it unlikely Rioux will be in danger next year.

Who could be in trouble in 2019?

If we apply the change in support in each region of the country to the results of the last election in each riding, we can see which parliamentary secretaries might theoretically be facing defeat next year.

The Liberals have taken a hit in the polls in Ontario while the New Democrats have surged there. How much of this can be chalked up to the recent provincial campaign is unknown, and polling might return to more familiar patterns after the summer. But applying those shifts to their 2015 election results puts Virani, Caesar-Chavannes and Rudd behind in their own ridings.

Add to that list parliamentary secretaries Marco Mendicino (Justice), Don Rusnak (Indigenous Services), Kate Young (Science) and Karen McCrimmon (Transport) — all of whom won by reasonable margins in 2015 but could be in trouble now, based on the recent polls. In New Brunswick, where the Liberals have seen their support drop while the Conservatives' has increased, Lockhart also would be in dire straits.

A few other parliamentary secretaries would squeak by with wins of less than 10 points: Terry Beech (Fisheries and Oceans) in British Columbia, Matt DeCourcey (Foreign Affairs) and Serge Cormier (Immigration) in New Brunswick, Joël Lightbound (Finance) in Quebec and Omar Alghabra (Consular Affairs), Adam Vaughan (Housing and Urban Affairs) and Mark Holland (Public Safety) in Ontario.

Joël Lightbound, parliamentary secretary to the minister of Finance, represents the riding of Louis-Hébert in the Quebec City region, a part of the province the Conservatives are targeting for electoral gains in 2019. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A few factors could put extra pressure on some of these parliamentary secretaries.

The Conservatives look poised to do very well in the Quebec City region, which the centre-right Coalition Avenir Québec party could sweep in the province's October election. That might put Lightbound and his Louis-Hébert seat in danger.

Disappointment over the collapse of the Energy East pipeline project might trouble Lockhart and DeCourcey in New Brunswick, while the Ontario NDP's recent electoral breakthrough could raise concerns over the chances of Toronto-area MPs like Virani and Vaughan, Young in London West and Kamal Khera (National Revenue) in Brampton West.

In British Columbia, anger over the government's purchase of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline could put the squeeze on Beech's seat in Burnaby North–Seymour, and chip away at the wide 2015 victory margins of B.C. MPs Pamela Goldsmith-Jones (International Trade) and Jonathan Wilkinson (Environment).

Delicate cabinet balancing act

But there are only so many cabinet spots to go around. New Brunswick already has two ministers, which would make it difficult to add a third. Atlantic Canada as a whole is over-represented in cabinet compared to the region's population, while British Columbia and (especially) Alberta are under-represented.

Alberta has just one cabinet minister; its population should give it about three in a team of 30. But the Liberals only have one other MP who could be promoted to the post after MP Kent Hehr resigned.

That's Randy Boissonnault in Edmonton Centre — and he could use the help. He won his seat by just 2.2 percentage points in 2015 and provincewide polls in Alberta suggest that margin could get even tighter in 2019.

A few of these parliamentary secretaries have performed well in their roles and so will have earned any promotions they might get. But if they do get bumped up to the big table, it will be hard to conclude that electoral considerations didn't also play some part in it.

About the Author

Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.

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