Politics·Analysis

Trudeau's cabinet picks seem designed to project stability, seriousness

Everything about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's new cabinet lineup seems calculated to present an image of continuity and experience - and to cope with the government's electoral failures in the West.

In 2015, 'change' was the driving narrative. The stakes for Trudeau are higher now - and time is short.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is at Rideau Hall today watching new and returning members of the federal cabinet take their oaths of office. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau's Liberals were shut out in Alberta and Saskatchewan last month, but the provinces got a shout-out in the cabinet choices the prime minister announced today.

Lacking an MP from the region, Trudeau tried for the next best thing. He named two key ministers with ties to the two provinces, and positioned a former cabinet minister as his eyes and ears in the Prairies.

To absolutely no one's surprise, Trudeau tapped Chrystia Freeland as his minister of intergovernmental affairs and deputy prime minister.

Chrystia Freeland is sworn in as the new Deputy Prime Minister as well as the new Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, a key portfolio that will have to deal with some dissatisfied Premiers across the country. 0:43

The first of those roles is to work with the premiers — particularly prominent Trudeau antagonists Jason Kenney of Alberta and Scott Moe of Saskatchewan — to show that Trudeau not only understands the frustration of people in those provinces, but intends to respond.

Her second role is more symbolic: Freeland becomes the first deputy prime minister since Anne McLellan 15 years ago. (The parallels don't end there. McLellan represented an Alberta riding, Freeland comes from the province and has family there. Both are women. Both enjoy unfettered access to their boss.)

Second among equals

Making Freeland deputy PM signals that while Trudeau remains first among equals as prime minister, she's clearly second.

Her job is to use the diplomatic skills she honed in dealing with the Trump administration to find solutions to regional grievances, starting in the Prairies.

That doesn't mean capitulating to (for example) Moe's demand that the federal price on carbon be suspended, or agreeing to change the way equalization is calculated.

It does mean getting clear, measurable results, as McLellan did, for the oil and gas sector. It also means she takes on the task of addressing the most virulent outbreak of western alienation since the birth of the Reform Party in the early 1990s.

Former Alberta premier Alison Redford said Trudeau's cabinet must include people who are able to sustain a dialogue with the premiers.

"So I think a more robust intergovernmental affairs department under Freeland would be wonderful, with an understanding that things like energy, transportation and infrastructure all need to come together," she said.

A less confrontational approach to climate change?

Freeland will be the lead on the western alienation file, but she might be sharing the load with the new environment minister, Jonathan Wilkinson, who spent many years in Saskatchewan. His style and tone offers a direct contrast to the previous minister, Catherine McKenna — whose assertive approach to the climate change file may have played well with environmentalists but was received poorly by some provinces.

And former cabinet minister Jim Carr, recently diagnosed with cancer, will act as Trudeau's special representative for the Prairies. That role will keep him close to home in Winnipeg while giving him direct line to the prime minister on regional issues.

Four years ago, Trudeau faced a major challenge in naming his first cabinet. Most of his choices were new not only to government, but to politics as well. He said his inner circle would reflect gender parity "because it's 2015." Change was the driving narrative.

From 'change' to 'continuity'

Four years later, the change narrative has run its course. Experience is the mantra in 2019. The emphasis now is on promoting those with solid communication skills and a proven track record in government.

It all suggests Canadians might be seeing less of Trudeau over the next few years — and more of the team.

Trudeau kept nearly all of his re-elected ministers from the last government. Some — such as Bill Morneau in finance and Carolyn Bennett at Crown-Indigenous relations — continue in their old roles as a nod to stability and some of the ongoing challenges the government faces.

"What we want Canadians to see is that we are going to continue to work on their behalf to make sure that our economy is strong and that we continue to think about how we create opportunities for all Canadians," Morneau said on his way in to the swearing-in ceremony.

The others who remain in their portfolios — Marie-Claude Bibeau at agriculture, Marc Garneau at transport, Navdeep Bains at innovation, science and industry, Harjit Sajjan at defence and Lawrence MacAulay at veterans affairs — are there to signal continuity, to reinforce the idea that the government has unfinished business from the last Parliament.

But continuity was only one element informing Trudeau's choices. Other factors played a role.

The clock is running now

One of those factors almost certainly was time. Trudeau wants tangible results from his minority government — and if history is any guide, he can expect that government to last only two years.

"They key thing we know about cabinets in minority situations is that you need a cabinet with great political skills, that knows where the pitfalls are," said David Herle, who held a senior role in Paul Martin's minority government from 2004-2006.

"Most of these jobs can't help you win an election. But all of these jobs can cost you an election. If you're a minister who doesn't pay attention to detail or doesn't smell out a political problem or have the wherewithal to fight the department down from a bad idea … that can be much more demanding in a minority than a majority government."

Regional alienation has gotten 'worse', says Clark

The other factor may be national unity. Former B.C. premier Christy Clark pointed to the regional tensions in the Prairies and the re-emergence of the Bloc Québécois as a political force in Quebec as significant challenges Trudeau must somehow manage.

"I think that the most important thing this government has to do is fix the federation," said Clark.

Comparing the first four years of Trudeau's government to his father's final years in office, Clark said she thinks "it's worse this time."

"The alienation in the West is much deeper," she said. "The anger in Alberta and Saskatchewan is very, very profound."

Liberals strategists (who spoke on condition of anonymity) insisted that the goals of this government have to be more than mere survival.

They said there are measures in the Liberal election platform that could find national consensus. Provincial infrastructure priorities could dovetail with Ottawa's goal of promoting green tech and fighting climate change, they said, while moves to introduce a pharmacare system (to cover, at least initially, low-income families or those dealing with life-threatening or chronic diseases) should be broadly popular.

It's a substantial to-do list for what could prove to be a short period of time. It's why stability now matters more to the Trudeau government now than change, why cooperation needs to replace confrontation.

Because it's 2019.

About the Author

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.

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