Trudeau’s cabinet shuffle was a head scratcher

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This week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made an utterly perplexing cabinet shuffle.

He demoted the country’s first Indigenous attorney general, at a time when his promises of a nation-to-nation, reconciled relationship are already feeling a bit hollow.  He moved one of his two most capable ministers from the Indigenous file, where she was just beginning to make progress, and replaced her with a former television host who was one of his wedding groomsmen.  To wrap things up, he promoted a no-name backbencher from Nova Scotia to a position called “Rural Economic Development Minister”, with no word whether this means his actual “Economic Development Minister” now needs to add the word “Urban” to his business cards.

Meanwhile, despite a finance minister who struggles to communicate his basic files, some obvious talent languishing on the backbench and an increasing sense that his reelection is far from assured, Trudeau seems to be opting for a “stay the course” narrative, one that looks more like obstinance than resolve.

Indeed, Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells was blistering in his assessment of the shuffle, referring to “the administrative bottlenecks, odd fondness for bad communications and preening moral self-regard that have come to characterize his government”.  He argued, “It’s hard to budge the trajectory of state from even a post as exalted as a seat at the federal cabinet table.  And harder if the government is, as is becoming increasingly obvious to all observers, chronically stage-managed by a tiny cadre of out-of-their-league staffers.”

Wells’s attacks on Trudeau’s staff — and, it should be said, principal secretary Gerry Butts in particular — seem designed to blow open the notion that folks on the Hill are beginning to bristle at a centralized PMO, especially when Trudeau promised a return to “cabinet government” following the centralization of the Harper era in the hands of the former PM’s own cadre of staffers.

Yet, from Trudeau the Elder in Canada to Thatcher and Blair in Britain, centralisation in the PMO seems to be the name of the game, with cabinet and backbenchers alike needing to clear their lines through a central office.  There’s an element, of course, to which such coordination is vital and irreplaceable.  But we are overdue in this country for an evaluation of how our parliamentary system and cabinet governance interacts with the modern-day pull for an “executive prime minister”.

Wells actually makes something of an attempt to forge a solution from this perplexing shuffle, arguing, “Philpott has, or might soon be given, a mandate to rationalize government operations across the board, to improve workflow and deliver more autonomy to ministers’ offices and to the public service… In this vision, Philpott would become an executive deputy Prime Minister without the title, the most powerful treasury board president since Marcel Massé.”

To paraphrase a Coen brothers’ flick: would that it were so simple.

For even as Trudeau has elevated Dr Philpott — who, along with Foreign Minister Chrystia Freehand is his most capable minister — he has done so at the expense of the Indigenous file, where her steady hand and compassionate approach was beginning to make progress.

In so doing, he’s replaced her by elevating a more junior minister and close friend to the PM who has thus far failed to distinguish himself, to put it mildly.  (There are one or two people in the cabinet who detractors might argue are there simply because they’re buddies with the right person in the PMO, for that matter.)

And, to add in insult to injury, Trudeau’s interference with the Indigenous file comes the same day he demotes the country’s first Indigenous attorney general.  In a statement, Minister Judy Wilson-Raybould did not seem to take kindly to a move from one of the government’s most senior ministries to a job that has “Associate Minister” in the title (whatever that means).

Neither did Indigenous voices across the country, notably The Star’s much-celebrated Tanya Malaga, who argued the PM is sending the wrong signal with these moves, “one that caused eyebrows across the country to lift.”

Eyebrow lifting across the country is an odd way to enter an election year.  Then again, to quote another Coen brothers’ flick, “Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

Photo Credit: Zoomer Radio

More from Jonathan Scott.   @J_Scott_

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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