Analysis

Trudeau's cabinet shuffle shows where Liberals think 2019 election will be decided

Justin Trudeau prepares for the next vote with three new ministers in the electorally decisive Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.

3 new ministers are named in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, while Quebec and B.C. also get a boost

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau added five new ministers to his cabinet on Wednesday, setting himself up for the 2019 federal election. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Not everything that happens in Ottawa is about the next federal election. But a lot of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's moves in Wednesday's cabinet shuffle sure look like they were tailor-made with the 2019 vote in mind.

But will the changes pay off for the Liberals?

In all, 11 ministers either changed jobs or were added to cabinet, increasing the size of the ministry from 30 to 35, including the prime minister — the largest it has been under Trudeau.

That still makes it smaller than the cabinet of 39 ministers Stephen Harper took into the 2015 federal election. But the scale of the shuffle suggests the Liberals felt some significant changes were needed ahead of next year's date with voters.

First-term governments have historically been much more likely than not to get a second term. But polls suggest the Liberals are far from being guaranteed re-election: If the current numbers are replicated in the October 2019 election, the party would only have a two-in-three chance of winning the most seats and just a one-in-five chance of a majority.

A few adjustments to increase those odds makes sense — and it starts in the one part of the country that has decided election after election.

3 new ministers for the GTHA

The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area is a huge electoral battleground home to some 7 million people and about one-sixth of the country's 338 seats. It helped deliver a majority government to Harper in 2011 and Trudeau in 2015, as well as one to Doug Ford, Ontario's new Progressive Conservative premier, earlier this year.

The region was already over-represented in Trudeau's cabinet, but that over-representation increased Wednesday. Three new ministers from the GTHA — Mary Ng, Bill Blair and Filomena Tassi — bump the region up to 11, or 31 per cent of the entire cabinet table. That's nearly double the region's share of ridings in the House of Commons.

The seats occupied by the new ministers are not particularly vulnerable. Ng won a 2017 byelection in Markham–Thornhill by a margin of 12.4 points over the Conservatives. In 2015, Tassi beat the Tories by 15.9 points in Hamilton West–Ancaster–Dundas, and Bill Blair prevailed by 28.8 points in Scarborough Southwest over the NDP.

Bill Blair, the newly named minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction, is the only cabinet member from the Scarborough area. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

But adding a little more ministerial heft to the GTHA could have electoral repercussions beyond those three ridings.

Markham already had a cabinet minister in Jane Philpott. But Ng, a Chinese-Canadian, does help the Liberals address what was a diversity shortcoming within cabinet. There are about a dozen ridings in Canada, half of them in the GTHA, in which Chinese-Canadians make up at least one-third of the population.

Tassi gives the party more profile in Hamilton, where the party holds two seats. The Liberals hold another two seats on the nearby Niagara Peninsula. All four Ontario ridings were won by the NDP in last month's provincial election.

And Blair gives the Liberals their only minister in Scarborough, an inner Toronto suburb worth six seats, which has been a three-way race between the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP in recent elections. A former chief of the Toronto police, Blair also has a profile throughout the city, and his role as minister for Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction could go some way to help the Liberals toughen up their image on these politically important files.

Stronger voices for Quebec

If holding the GTHA is one plank in the Liberals' re-election hopes, the other is to make gains in Quebec to make up for expected losses in other parts of the country. With the Conservatives making inroads in the province, the Liberals need to put their strongest voices forward.

The promotion of Pablo Rodriguez from outside cabinet and the demotion of Mélanie Joly to a lower-profile job serves that purpose.

Replacing Joly at Canadian Heritage, Rodriguez will have a relatively high-profile portfolio — particularly in Quebec — while Joly, now heading up Tourism, Official Languages and La Francophonie, will handle a file that is less likely to cause trouble for the government.

Pablo Rodriguez adds another minister for the island of Montreal, a region in which the Liberals are well-positioned to hold its seats and make some gains. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

Along with Marc Garneau and Joly, Rodriguez puts the number of cabinet ministers on the island of Montreal at three. (Four with Trudeau.) But the region is not one in which the Liberals are in much trouble; a recent CROP poll put the Liberals 29 points ahead on the island. There are a few gains to make in Montreal, but this suggests Rodriguez may find himself put to use spreading the Liberals' message across the rest of the province instead.

Moving François-Philippe Champagne from International Trade to Infrastructure means an effective communicator will be spending more time across the country — and in Quebec — on one of the platform planks that helped elect the Liberals in 2015.

Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, not in that order

The movement of New Brunswick's Dominic LeBlanc to handle Intergovernmental Affairs created an opening at Fisheries and Oceans. With Atlantic Canada already over-represented with five ministers, the job went to Jonathan Wilkinson of British Columbia.

There are a number of hot files related to the fishing industry — quotas and new regulations to protect the right whale — that could make moving the portfolio out of Atlantic Canada controversial.

But the Liberals hold all 32 seats and enjoy a 31-point lead in the polls in the region.

From left to right: François-Philippe Champagne, Pablo Rodriguez, Bill Blair, Filomena Tassi, Jonathan Wilkinson and Mary Ng. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

It might mean that Wilkinson will be putting the emphasis on the oceans rather than the fisheries. He's charged with implementing the government's "oceans protection plan," a policy aimed in part at mitigating concerns over the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline that will carry bitumen from Alberta's oilsands to the B.C. coast. 

The Liberals hold 18 seats in British Columbia, though not all of them are vulnerable due to the government's purchasing of the pipeline. But those seats located in and around Vancouver could be on the bubble. Having an extra B.C. minister from the Greater Vancouver region handling this file might help keep those seats in line — though it potentially comes at the cost of pushing a few more East Coast ridings over to the Conservatives.

But a lot can change in a year's time.

The parts of the country that look competitive today may not be competitive tomorrow. Wednesday's cabinet shuffle, however, shows where the Liberals think the election will be won or lost in the next federal election.

Their bets are now in; we'll find out if they pay off in 2019.

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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