Politics·Analysis

Cabinet resignation gives Trudeau chance to sharpen government's focus on getting results: Chris Hall

Judy Foote’s departure as the only federal cabinet minister from Newfoundland and Labrador leaves Prime Minister Trudeau with a choice between tinkering with his inner circle and reinforcing that his government intends to get results.

Insiders expect full-time minister for public works and possibly associate minister for Indigenous affairs

After 28 years in politics, the federal public services minister, Judy Foote, has left the Trudeau cabinet and will be resigning her seat as a Newfoundland and Labrador MP next month. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Judy Foote's departure as the only federal cabinet minister from Newfoundland and Labrador leaves Prime Minister Trudeau with a choice between tinkering with his inner circle and reinforcing that his government intends to get results.

Foote confirmed Thursday that her leave of absence from cabinet to attend to personal matters will be permanent so she can be closer to her home and family. Her resignation as public works and procurement minister is effective immediately.

While it had been expected, the prime minister now has a vacancy to fill from a province where he will be holding his annual cabinet retreat in just three weeks. Arriving in St. John's with no minister from the province may not add enormous urgency to his decision, but it's not a storyline he wants to read.

He also has to find a full-time minister for Public Works and Procurement. The department is responsible for the malfunctioning Phoenix payroll system that's overpaid some public servants, underpaid far more, and paid too many not at all.

It's highly unlikely a newcomer would be handed that job. Or that Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, who is doing it now on an interim basis, will be asked to continue in both roles.

Friend and former broadcaster possible pick

For now, most Liberal insiders believe the nod to replace Foote as Newfoundland and Labrador's member will go to Seamus O'Regan.

The freshman MP from St. John's South-Mount Pearl is a former broadcaster highly valued for his communication skills. He built a national profile during his years as a TV host, and he's considered good on his feet.

He's also a close friend of Trudeau's, close enough to be part of the prime minister's controversial family vacation on the private island of the Aga Khan. And friendship, as that vacation attests, is an important commodity for this prime minister.

But just who he taps may well matter less than what other signals Trudeau wants to send when he gets around to his decision.

Will he want to keep gender parity in cabinet? Will he move to fill another vacancy at the table by appointing a junior minister for small business, a job now being done by House leader Bardish Chagger. Will he feel the need to do more than tinker?

To that last question, the answer is maybe.

No overarching issue

This is not the same situation Trudeau faced back in January when he  shuffled his cabinet to deal with the suddenly more volatile and challenging relationship presented by the U.S. Trump administration.

Liberal strategists say there's no such overarching theme this time around. Yes, replacing Foote offers an opportunity near the halfway point in the Liberals' mandate to freshen things up, to give the usual mid-term doldrums a required breath of something to get things moving again.

But Liberals are looking longer term. They remain well ahead in public opinion polls. The Conservatives just chose a new leader. The NDP pick theirs next month.

"The big challenges are still six to eight months away," says one long-time Liberal. "That's when the big Canada-U.S. files, NAFTA and softwood lumber, are going to have landed one way or the other. That's the time for re-engineering."

It's also when the Liberals will have to start showing that their stimulus efforts in the first two budgets, the multi-billions earmarked for infrastructure spending, are creating jobs and improving the quality of life for middle-class Canadians.

Still, a number of party strategists, while not unanimous in their views, identify areas where changes could be made to put a sharper focus on the results-oriented style of government Trudeau wants.

Looking for results

Public Works and Procurement is on the list. Problems with the Phoenix payroll system is a morale-sapper. A consultant's report obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act back in June found the government failed to understand the scope and complexity of overhauling its IT services, leading to an inability to deliver upgrades across the government, including new email systems.

A full-time minister is in order.

Indigenous Affairs is another department where insiders expect to see changes. Carolyn Bennett is well-liked by Indigenous leaders and other stakeholders.

But the results are coming more slowly than wanted. The inquiry into missing and murdered women and girls is mired in resignations and protests from the families it is intended to serve. Too many First Nations communities remain on boil-water advisories.

There are suggestions that the government may want to appoint an associate minister to track results, and work with other departments such as Health to ensure initiatives are being given sufficient priority.

So it comes down to what signals the prime minister wants to send. He's on the road for the next couple of days, giving him time to decide whether he's satisfied to merely fill a vacancy, or to reinforce his government's commitment to produce results.

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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