The federal cabinet gets a good shake

Finally, after an unusually long wait, on Tuesday, white smoke emerged from the Parliamentary ‘Sistine chapel’. Behold, we have a new cabinet!

Before evaluating the starting line-up, a few thoughts about the cabinet-making process.

First, it’s a lonely and difficult task. The PM can consult far and wide about whom to consider and why, but in the end, it’s his call. He owns the decision.

Second, the PM will always disappoint more MP’s than he will make happy. Most government MPs believe they are deserving candidates, but it comes down to a limited supply of seats vs a high demand.

Third, PMs must balance their selections by a number of criteria — region, gender, ethnicity, long time supporters, experience, professional backgrounds. What this means is that the best people in caucus will not necessarily be the chosen ones. More disappointment.

So, how does the new Ministerial team stack up?

Well, the old cabinet certainly got a thorough shake — three Ministers were dropped, including the former Foreign Minister, Marc Garneau; nine Ministers are new; and 17 switched portfolios. I welcome this change. Hopefully for Canadians, the revamping will induce a renewed and reinvigorated start to the third Libéral mandate; one that will produce some fresh and creative policy thinking. Prime Minister Trudeau deserves credit for upending the status quo.

However, the 39-seat Cabinet is a tad large. The PM added four more seats, and it now approaches the high of 40 set by both Mulroney and Harper. Trudeau must apply a laser focus so that Cabinet meetings don’t become debating societies. Also, as he promised, his team is gender equal, 19 women and 19 men.

The two big winners were Anita Anand, who moved to the more senior and problematic portfolio of Defence, and Melanie Joly, who became Minister of Foreign Affairs, the fifth in six years. Ms. Joly was rewarded for her recent good work in cabinet, as well as for her loyalty and leadership as the national co-chair of the Liberal’s election campaign. I hope for the sake of our foreign policy that she will be given enough runway to accomplish her priorities.

Ms. Anand was promoted following her stellar work in procuring Covid vaccines as Public Works Minister. She is very capable, but she will be severely tested by a departmental culture that has been gripped by a sexual misconduct crisis. Besides utilizing her sharp mind, Anand will also need sharp elbows when confronting officials who are set in their ways, and adept at political in-fighting.

The former, battered Defence Minister was moved to International Development. Harjit Sajjan is fortunate to have survived, as his six years of running the military was underwhelming to say the least. Many observers felt he should have been dropped entirely and replaced by another fresh face.

The new Minister of the Environment and Climate Change is Quebec MP, Steven Guilbeault. He is very familiar with his new dossier. But in the long run, he could prove to be a challenge for the government.  In his past life, he was an environmental activist, a leading member of Greenpeace, and an anti-pipeline crusader. He will need to temper his natural inclinations and stay on script if he is to successfully build a  consensus between major competing interests. This includes working collaboratively with western provinces that are heavily reliant on oil and gas, and natural resources. Alberta Premier Jason Kenny has already called Guilbault’s appointment “problematic”. Stay tuned.

Speaking about Alberta, only two Liberal MP’s were elected in the province. After being shut out of the last cabinet, one of them, Edmonton’s Randy Boissonnault, made it as Tourism Minister.

There were also some changes to governance structures. The matters of emergency preparedness, housing, and mental health were all assigned individual line Ministers, which is welcome news, especially as it regards the mental well-being of Canadians.

In reviewing the selections, one cannot escape the power shift towards the women’s Ministerial ‘caucus’. It has emerged considerably stronger. Not only do they hold the same number of seats as their male counterparts, but they also lead some of the most senior departments — Finance, Foreign Affairs, Defence, International Trade, and Treasury Board. In addition, Chrystia Freeland retains her role as as Deputy PM. Whether people agree or not, this will be one certain legacy of Justin Trudeau. Power to them!

While achieving gender balance is an important consideration in today’s world of politics, it does come at a cost. A number of highly qualified MP’s were squeezed out by the corresponding math. Here, I’m thinking of impressive newcomers like Ottawa’s Yasir Naqvi, London’s Arielle Kayabaga, and Toronto’s Michael Coteau. Plus, long-serving Ottawa-area stalwarts like David McGuinty, Anita Vandenbeld, and Greg Fergus must be wondering if they will ever see the inside of the cabinet room. My heart goes out to them and others who were anxiously waiting by their phones.

Being named to cabinet is a big deal.

I fondly recall the incredible excitement I felt on being invited to the prestigious club by Jean Chretien. The moment was truly magical. I instantly thought of all the distinguished names that preceded me, and I had to pinch myself, to make sure it wasn’t an illusion. At the same time, the elation was also accompanied by some nervousness. After all, leading a department is fraught with challenges, and the last thing you want to do is slip on the big stage, in front of a watchful public.

I wish all the Ministers well. The more they prosper, the more our country benefits. I would also encourage them to take the time to savour the moment with family, friends and staff. Because it will soon be show time, and the honeymoon is normally very, very short!