Justin Trudeau's plans revealed in ministers' mandate letters

Justin Trudeau's marching orders for his cabinet reveal a cautious approach to what's doable. That's bad news for those who hoped for pot houses and brothels on every corner, says CBC's Terry Milewski.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is told to pull out Canada's CF-18s from bombing in Iraq, but no date

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has given his cabinet ministers their marching orders in mandate letters released on Friday. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

First, the bad news. Justin Trudeau's marching orders for his ministers are out, and anyone who voted Liberal hoping that Jason Kenney was right will be disappointed.

In the heat of the election campaign, the former Conservative defence minister predicted that a Liberal win would mean pot shops and brothels on every corner.

"Unlike Justin Trudeau," Kenney thundered on Sept. 25, "we don't think marijuana should be sold in convenience stores. He also wants to force communities to establish illegal drug injection sites and the Liberals also support the legalization of prostitution — he also wants to force communities to accept brothels."

It's a shock, then, to see that Trudeau's "mandate letters" are full of cautious legalese, urging ministers to "consult" and "develop plans" and "establish committees" before doing much of anything.

Create a federal-provincial-territorial process first

Instead of pot in convenience stores, the new prime minister urges his Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to "create a federal-provincial-territorial process that will lead to the legalization and regulation of marijuana." 

A federal-provincial-territorial process? Let's face it, that could take forever.

But that's how it goes in the long and careful series of letters to ministers. Not that there aren't some interesting clues to the prime minister's thinking on the great issues of the day.

For example, the letter to the environment minister, Catherine McKenna, tells her to get together with the provinces and produce some national emissions targets. No surprise there. But she is also told to get together with the U.S. and Mexico to "develop an ambitious North American clean energy and environment agreement."

That sounds like a bid to co-ordinate emissions targets — another process which doesn't sound like it's likely to be quick.

Amending C-51, the anti-terror bill

Mostly, though, the letters are tied directly to the Liberals' campaign promises — such as, the pledge to amend the Conservatives' big security bill, C-51. The prime minister instructs Ralph Goodale, the public safety minister, to "introduce new legislation that strengthens accountability with respect to national security and better balances collective security with rights and freedoms." 

Elsewhere, Government House Leader Dominic Leblanc is told to arrange a parliamentary committee, with access to classified information, which would oversee the security agencies. 

Nothing unclear about that. But other letters are intriguingly vague. 

Chrystia Freeland, for example, as minister of international trade, is told to "develop strategies to implement the Canada-European Trade Agreement (CETA) and consult on Canada's potential participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)."

Interesting. There's a big difference between "implement" and "consult." Trudeau is endorsing the European agreement but not the "potential" Trans-Pacific one. No doubt, he's well aware that the latter may never emerge alive from the U.S. Congress.

Bring the planes home, but when?

He's also sticking with his pledge to pull Canada's CF-18s out of the bombing in Iraq — but there's a wrinkle. He tells Harjit Sajjan, the new defence minister, to go ahead and bring those planes home. But he doesn't say when. He never does. He just says it will be done "responsibly" and in co-ordination with Canada's allies.

Does that mean they could stay until the current mission ends in March of next year? The mandate letter doesn't say yes or no.

There's more wiggle room to be found on the subject of the F-35, the fighter jet which Trudeau said during the election campaign that he would not buy.

But the mandate letter for Sajjan merely tells him to "launch an open and transparent competition to replace the CF-18 fighter aircraft, focusing on options that match Canada's defence needs."

That does not specifically exclude the F-35. If it does not "match Canada's defence needs," then why not say so, as he did during the campaign. Is the door open just a crack? And if the competition is to be "open and transparent," how could it not be "open" to the F-35?

Step away from the salt!

So the mandate letters present much to chew on. But get ready to have your chewing monitored carefully by the government.

The new health minister is urged by Trudeau to bring in "new restrictions on the commercial marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children." Jane Philpott must also insist on "tougher regulations to eliminate trans fats and to reduce salt in processed foods."

So at least we're clear on that. Get ready for the war on salt.


Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.