Trudeau cabinet has car trouble on the way to bigger things

Justin Trudeau's cabinet last gathered together in Kananaskis, Alta., in late April. Back then, there was no reason to question Jane Philpott's transportation choices. Of course, a government's life only ever gets more complicated.

Ministers gather to consider important issues, and perhaps also the right price to pay for a limo

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses reporters during a cabinet retreat in Alberta last April. There's big and small things to consider during a retreat next week in Sudbury, Ont. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau's cabinet last gathered together in Kananaskis, Alta.,  in late April. 

Back then, there was no reason to question Jane Philpott's transportation choices, Hunter Tootoo was still fisheries minister, the House leader had been an MP for more than 10 months, Motion No. 6 attempting to limit Commons debate had not yet reached the notice paper, the government's new payroll system was said to be experiencing only scattered issues and we could only imagine what the prime minister looked like with his shirt off at a wedding.

It was a simpler time.

Of course, a government's life, like any human endeavour, only ever gets more complicated, in small ways and big ways.

And as the cabinet gathers this week in Sudbury, Ont., the prime minister freshly buoyed and burdened by the daunting endorsement of Gord Downie, it has small and big things to consider, and perhaps worry about.

Bunking together ahead of a frenetic fall

Ministers will be bunking together in dorm rooms at Laurentian University, which should at least reduce the risk of an extravagant bill on the public accounts (although, if memory serves, it might increase the odds of staying up all night playing video games).

​The topics for official discussion are to include the prime minister's upcoming meeting with the premiers on climate change, the government's fall agenda, Indigenous reconciliation and dealings between Canada and the United States.

Canadian ambassador to the U.S. David MacNaughton will address cabinet on the latter. Sir Michael Barber, the British political guru who has put great thought into how governments can deliver on their commitments, will meet with the cabinet for a third time (having taken part in the cabinet's two previous retreats as well). 

For the 30 ministers, there are the makings of a frenetic fall.

Pipelines, pot and peacekeeping

In addition to a national plan on climate change (merely the sort of endeavour that could be foremost in this government's legacy), the provinces would also like to discuss health care — Health Minister Philpott wants new health accords in place by the end of the year.

There are 20 vacancies on the Senate to be filled and a seat on the Supreme Court will open up in September.

The government must decide by Sept. 22 whether to appeal a federal court's decision to strike down the conditional approval of Northern Gateway. A decision on Pacific Northwest LNG is due in early October. And cabinet must decide whether to approve the TransMountain pipeline by Dec. 19.

A "discussion paper" from the task force on Canada Post is due in September. The task force on the legalization of marijuana is to issue a final report in November. And the special House of Commons committee on electoral reform is required to report back by December.

Somewhere in there the finance minister, who has expert panels considering economic growth and tax code reform, will be expected to deliver the fall economic and fiscal update.

A new office for de-radicalization is expected to be established. Legislation on expanding the Canada Pension Plan will have to be passed. Perhaps there'll be a decision on a peacekeeping mission. And there's an innovation agenda being put together.

These are the sorts of things that can define a government and change a country.

Beside all that, the question of Jane Philpott's car service might not seem to matter too much. But, of course, it does. Or, at least, it could.

Outstanding questions for Jane Philpott

​Through her office, the minister has acknowledged the charges incurred were excessive and promised to repay all costs over and above the market rate. But it might've been nice to see and hear Philpott saying those things on camera by now, while also addressing the outstanding questions of the proprietor's support of her campaign and whether she misled the House of Commons when she indicated she had not travelled in a "limousine."

Philpott will no doubt be pursued on Sunday when reporters gather outside the cabinet's confab.

Quite possibly this will not amount to anything pivotal. The last government, for instance, managed nearly a decade in power despite its own dalliances with limousines and minor furors over misplaced briefsa misplaced recorder, a makeup artist and a little meddling with an access to information request.

But the Conservatives are intent on compiling evidence of possible excess and the Liberals might at least try to avoid making that too easy a task.

"When we make a mistake – as all governments do – it is important that we acknowledge that mistake and learn from it," the prime minister wrote in an open letter to Canadians last November.

So perhaps this week, in between sorting out climate change and how to improve the welfare of Indigenous peoples, ministers can have a chat about proper expectations for booking a car (and whether acknowledging one's mistake might be done more readily).

Small failures in the pursuit of big things

Small things can add up to a big thing. And perhaps the worst possibility is that the small things comes to seem indicative of something inherent to the government: arrogance or carelessness or mismanagement..

This is a government committed to spending and doing big things. So it might not want to reinforce the idea that it can't be trusted to spend and act responsibly.

And presumably some number of mistakes will be made in the process of doing the big things.

"We know that you do not expect us to be perfect," Trudeau wrote last fall, neatly preparing the country for inevitable disappointment, "but you expect us to work tirelessly, and to be honest, open, and sincere in our efforts to serve the public interest."

But the impossibility of perfection does not quite excuse all missteps. And stalking this government are its own ambitious promises and its commitment to doing things differently. 

Promises might not be kept, actions might go awry, the new House leader might have to use time allocation. What then?

Big things go in the history books, but small failures can grind away.


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.