Justin Trudeau's 'freewheeling' style of cabinet management not without risks

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's pledge to allow his cabinet ministers more freedom to speak on issues may already be on display. But it may come with some political risks.

PM's pledge to allow ministers more freedom to speak out already on display

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged to allow his cabinet ministers more freedom to speak on issues. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

When Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan recently mused that the F­-35s may not be excluded from the competition to replace Canada's fleet of fighter jets, his comments were significant on two fronts.

Substantively, it seemed to contradict what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had said on the campaign trail, that the controversial jets were off the table.

Politically, however, it may have been a sign that Canadians are witnessing what had been a political rarity during the Harper years —  ­ a cabinet minister freelancing an opinion. 

It's no secret that former prime minister Stephen Harper ran a top-­down government, keeping his cabinet on a tight leash in terms of what they could say publicly about government policy.

By contrast, Trudeau has vowed to loosen the reins and run what he's called "government by cabinet," meaning less­ PMO control over what individual ministers can do with their own files.

"This is going to be a period of slight adjustment in the political world in Canada, because government by cabinet is back," he said following the swearing-in ceremony.

Harper's strict message discipline, says Ian Brodie, a former chief of staff to Harper, came after 13 years of Liberal governments under Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, where caucus, and sometimes cabinet, conversations were routinely leaked.

"It was a mess, and a disservice both to caucus and to cabinet colleagues," Brodie said.

"Mr. Harper wanted to run a very disciplined government where people didn't get out ahead of themselves in public," he went on. "And Trudeau's going to run a much more freewheeling government."

'Totally viable way to run a cabinet'

More of that freelancing was on display recently when Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion told reporters that Canada's bombing mission in Iraq and Syria will end in "a matter of weeks, not months," while Sajjan, in an interview with SiriusXM, suggested no timetable had been set.

Having cabinet ministers contradict one another in public is a "totally viable way to run a cabinet," Brodie says. But it does come with some inherent risks.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan's recent musings about the F-35s may have been a sign of Justin Trudeau's vow to run a more open cabinet. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

"The crunch will come when decisions start to get made and some minister will find they've put their foot one step ahead of where the decision is going to be, and they feel embarrassed they said something in public their cabinet colleague didn't see the same way."

Brodie said he sees nothing wrong with ministers going out and publicly floating ideas to see if there would be some give and take around the cabinet table.

"When you start going around, talking about things that are going to happen that are going to cost money, but which there has been no definitive decision, that's more worrisome," he said.

The practice also means that when a Liberal minister comments on an issue, it may not carry the same weight as it would have during the Harper years. When a Harper cabinet minister did offer an opinion on an issue, "you could take it to the bank," Brodie said.

Now, a minister's comments may raise questions about whether it's the final word on a subject or even a guide post for what decision is going to be.

Statements 'not that weighty'

As for the contrast with Harper, former high-ranking political aides also noted that for much of his time as prime minister, the former Conservative leader was running a minority government, with the fear that it could fall at any moment.

"You had this ongoing 24/7 permanent campaign overlay and in that dynamic, message discipline is king," said David McLaughlin, a former chief of staff to Brian Mulroney. "You can't exist and succeed in a permanent campaign dynamic unless you have absolute message discipline."
Former prime minister Stephen Harper invoked strict discipline among his cabinet ministers. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

At the same time, McLaughlin praised Trudeau's new open style, saying it should be the default position of any government.

"You can be open and transparent with information, open with what you're trying to accomplish and still be disciplined and focussed in your messaging. I don't see them as an absolute contradiction." 

"So kudos to him for saying that's the way I want to run the government and that's the operating principle," he said.

His cautionary note, though, was that ministers should stick to their portfolios. Problems arise when ministers start commenting on broader political policies and strategies, and these can lead to mixed messages being sent out.

"There will be a sense with voters of confusion, a lack of professionalism in the way they do stuff. [That they are] uncertain, indecisive," McLaughlin said.

"I think they're ways away from that" though, he added. "No imminent danger of it at this moment."

Tim Murphy, the former chief of staff to Paul Martin, said it can be good for the public to see ministers debate and recognize there's not a single point of view among them.

"I don't think it's a bad thing for people to see how the sausage is made. I think it's important, frankly, for democracy, for attracting good candidates, that people actually get the opportunity to say some things that aren't drafted by the PMO," he said.

"At some point a policy decision will be made and people will have to deal with the consequences. But the process of getting to the policy and seeing it's not just one view, I don't see it as a bad thing. Not saying anything until something has been decided, I think that weakens democracy."


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