Chrystia Freeland is now the minister for almost everything

Justin Trudeau continues to task his government with doing a great many things. And he has now assigned a great deal of responsibility for getting things done to Chrystia Freeland.

New mandate letters suggest a government focused on being seen to get things done

Chrystia Freeland, centre, arrives for the swearing in of the new cabinet at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 20. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau continues to task his government with doing a great many things. And he has now assigned a great deal of responsibility for getting things done to Chrystia Freeland.

Sometime after the prime minister issued mandate letters to his ministers in 2015 — the first time those official letters of assignment had been made public — officials in the Privy Council Office sat down to tally up a cumulative to-do list. In all, they counted 364 commitments, roughly in line with the 353 campaign promises the Liberals had made.

That is, by any standard, a lot. And some of those items remain works in progress four years later — implementing the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools, for instance, or following through on a national housing strategy.

In this fall's election campaign, the Liberal platform included approximately 180 promises — a comparatively paltry sum, but still a substantial list, with significant additions to the pile. In their current minority situation, the Trudeau government also might not get a full four years to do all of it.

But that minority isn't yet being treated as an excuse for not doing things. So the to-do list is again extensive. The mandate letter for Carla Qualtrough, the new minister of employment, workforce development and disability inclusion, lists 27 items. Health Minister Patty Hajdu has 25 things to do.

Getting things done - and getting credit for it

If they do nothing else, the letters illuminate all the things a government can do with its time and resources.

Conservatives will say it's too much and New Democrats will say it's not nearly enough, but the Liberals must concern themselves first and foremost just with doing everything they've identified as things worth doing.

The Liberals did a significant number of things in their first four years, but they struggled to get credit for any of it. Whatever they did was haunted by the things they failed to do (electoral reform, balancing the budget) and the things that either didn't go smoothly or weren't getting done fast enough (Indigenous reconciliation, in particular).

Then, of course, there were the things that Trudeau shouldn't have done — the things that distracted from the rest of the government's agenda (the trip to the Aga Khan's island, the trip to India, the SNC-Lavalin affair, those blackface photos).

Trudeau's own high profile arguably crowded out any focus on what his government was supposed to be doing. His frequent statements about his government's ideals also seemed to make its failures more spectacular. And when he got knocked down, he was unable to fall back on a widely accepted public record of simply getting things done.

Freeland is everywhere now

Given a second chance, he has stepped back from the spotlight and enlisted a second-in-command — the relentless Chrystia Freeland.

When Freeland was announced as the new deputy prime minister and intergovernmental affairs minister, it wasn't obvious what she would be doing, beyond perhaps shuttling between provincial capitals to broker peace with recalcitrant premiers.

With the release of her mandate letter on Friday, it's now clear what files Freeland will be involved with: nearly all of them.

According to that letter, she will work "very closely" with Trudeau "in both setting and fulfilling the government's agenda." She will "lead key cabinet work streams in the achievement of national commitments to Canadians," including enhancements to medicare, the implementation of the pan-Canadian framework on climate change, new measures to control the use of firearms and improved access to child care.

She'll also lead work with the provinces to improve international provincial trade, assist with regional economic development initiatives and support efforts to advance Indigenous self-determination. She's also still responsible for completing the ratification of NAFTA (at least that's nearly done now).

In all, Freeland's mandate letter mentions 11 other ministers with whom she is being asked to work.

The title of "deputy prime minister," it turns out, was not a symbolic gesture.

One might wonder whether other ministers — particularly those who imagine themselves one day succeeding Trudeau — could eventually chafe at Freeland's prominence or purview. But for the sake of ensuring that Trudeau isn't soon succeeded by the person the Conservative Party chooses as its next leader, Freeland's fellow ministers have to hope that she succeeds in helping this government get things done.

Whenever the next election comes, the Liberals need a record of achievement to run on and a leader who has been able to rehabilitate and re-frame his public image. A list of accomplishments would go a long way toward rehabilitating that leader.

With so much to do, and so much riding on getting it done, Trudeau has asked Freeland to shoulder a large share of the load.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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