Over the past week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has appointed a new cabinet, with a predictable path that has emerged following every change of government in recent decades. A noticeable twist lies in Trudeau’s style, which though vacuous and predictable has perhaps delivered more new faces to the House of Commons than in most other governments and in the case of today’s cabinet, a number of first-time MPs, including six new women. While these results matter very little on their own, they are important indications of how the New Democratic Party and Greens, less powerful organizations that operated in the shadow of Liberal governments, are likely to operate going forward.
Trudeau’s cabinet today bears little resemblance to the cabinet that he led before the election. The Liberals of the past elected dozens of first-term MPs and many cabinet ministers. When the NDP and Greens won seats in 2018, they elected a total of nine first-term MPs and the majority of members first elected before Trudeau’s Liberals. These results matter because in 2015 they showed that more and more Canadians are lining up with the Liberals’ agenda but are unhappy with Trudeau’s performance. A new cabinet of 29 men and eight women reflects the new calculus and the prime minister’s strategy to appeal to both parties in this country and to the one more on the right.
Trudeau’s pattern is most evident in his cabinet appointments. In every cabinet of his (and indeed previous governments) Trudeau filled several non-government portfolios, most of which were filled with longtime cabinet ministers, these include the environment, transportation, health, defence, immigration, international trade, environment, human rights, immigration, Indian and Northern Affairs, sport, aboriginal affairs, national defence, justice, industry, immigration, science, heritage, public safety, foreign affairs, and finance. When it comes to these previous ministers, we do know Trudeau intended to move them, he even said that he was going to lose them. In the end, there was no big cleanup. That Trudeau has replaced just nine veterans with new members is the extent of the shuffle, with only two ministers from 2016-2017 (Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor and International Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne) leaving cabinet entirely. And as is typical for a new minister, there are some exceptions to the rule. In the case of Justice Minister David Lametti, though he replaced Jody Wilson-Raybould, he was just one MP. A number of high-profile veterans from Bill Morneau’s previous Finance ministry have also been moved to different portfolios. However, former Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, who served as a cabinet member for a decade, has been rewarded with a new post as international minister, a substantial promotion that actually puts her among the highest profile ministers of government, third in the hierarchy after the prime minister and foreign affairs minister.
What is missing in the style of the new cabinet is any hint of big-ticket items. The committee that deals with trade is still headed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former minister, before he himself moved to the Harper Global Affairs ministry. There is no mention of carbon pricing and there is a big surprise on our gas tax with Ontario’s minister moving to be minister of small business and tourism, a key portfolio under the current Liberal government.
The pattern is clear but, most importantly, Trudeau and his government have not said one word on any significant policy ideas, this has helped to give a sharp difference in style and style alone to the Conservative party and the NDP. The Tories have been to many cabinet retreats in the last few years, with a clear visual and verbal posture, so their messaging on a range of policies has become more important as their policy agenda has grown.
Despite these changes, though, Trudeau’s centre of gravity remains similar to the Liberal parties of the past. He has formed an expanding coalition of new MPs and independents who can help him out but no ideological base, which is important in a time of upheaval and different policies such as carbon pricing and transit. While Liberal MPs from Western Canada and Nova Scotia have expressed concern about internal cuts to the military, the new approach to the government is still a matter of boilerplate talking points and partisanship. If Trudeau wants to be re-elected next time, he should take notice of the significance of today’s cabinet picks and adjust his approach accordingly.