Who’s got the real power and influence in Trudeau’s new cabinet?

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OTTAWA—There was a lot of change for change’s sake in the 2019 cabinet unveiled by Justin Trudeau.

The prime minister invented new titles that came without clear job descriptions. He brought in seven newcomers. He split duties from some ministers and gave them to others, and assigned most returning cabinet veterans new positions.

But is there less there than meets the eye? Where does the real power and influence lie?

In what appears to be both branding exercise and a big thank you to the MP who co-wrote the Liberal platform, Trudeau named MP Mona Fortier as minister of middle class prosperity and associate minister of finance — a junior minister to Finance Minister Bill Morneau. It’s a big promotion for the Ottawa-area MP. But it’s a promotion that comes without a department of her own or a budget, or even an actual job description until Trudeau releases his mandate letters.

A senior government source said Fortier will ensure that a “middle-class lens” is applied to all federal policies and spending, just as the Trudeau government put in place the practice of applying “a gender-based analysis” to everything it did in the last mandate.

Fortier says her job was to promote economic growth for the middle class. She was hard-pressed Thursday to explain whose job it is to actually lead the fight against poverty.

There’s no minister for that.

There does seem to be a minister for everything else — families, children, social development, international development, workforce development, rural economic development, seniors, export promotion — you name it, it’s in someone’s title somewhere.

“It’s a good question,” Fortier admitted as she exited the first cabinet meeting. “At the moment I think everybody is concerned about the fight, about poverty, but I’ll see in the next few days how we are going to ensure that, that we manage that situation.”

Markham-Thornhill MP Mary Ng is minister of small business, export promotion and international trade — gone is the portfolio of “International Trade Diversification”. That’s just so last mandate.

Ng’s main job is to help Canadian businesses increase their exports to new markets under the free trade agreements already signed. A second senior government source was frank: the Trudeau minority government is no longer focused on expanding the number of international trade agreements, and is doubling down instead on trying to reap the benefits of deals already reached with the EU, the Asia-Pacific regions and the as-yet unratified new North American pact.

Trudeau made Bardish Chagger his minister of diversity and inclusion and youth. It was a clear demotion for the Waterloo MP who was House leader and past minister for small business and tourism. It comes without a department or a budget, at least any that Chagger could identify Thursday. It appears to overlap with Heritage, and incidentally off-loads Trudeau’s own responsibility as minister for youth.

But Chagger counts herself lucky to remain in cabinet. Trudeau moved two female ministers out of cabinet altogether, including New Brunswick’s Ginette Pettipas-Taylor whose shuffle into a parliamentary role knocked the Atlantic Canadian contingent at the cabinet table down to four from five — ruffling feathers out east.

And Trudeau stripped the Treasury Board president title from Vancouver MP Joyce Murray, leaving her with digital government only. He gave the big central agency job of overseeing all government spending to Quebec City’s Jean-Yves Duclos, an economist by training.

Until the prime minister releases the marching orders for ministers it’s far from clear what several of these jobs or their sphere of influence or budgets actually are.

Set aside the departmental names. All ministerial jobs come with an extra $85,500 on top of their MP salary of $178,900; a car and driver; and a say at the cabinet table. Trudeau has not made anyone “minister of state” — explicitly a more junior role that once came with lower pay. In his first 2015 cabinet, the feminist prime minister had named women to several of those roles and created a gender pay gap he scrambled to fix.

Still, if you want to look at who’s got influence, government observers often follow the money: who’s got the spending power?

This week Trudeau boosted the influence of several still relatively inexperienced cabinet ministers who had only one term in government under their belt:

Carla Qualtrough, minister of employment, workforce development and disability inclusion, has responsibility for a department that spends about $125 billion a year on employment insurance, Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security and other programs. She was seen as a star in her last role at public services and procurement.

Now that job goes to a new MP, Oakville’s Anita Anand, a law professor who hadn’t even yet attended a caucus meeting but was sworn into cabinet and put in charge of a $4-billion department that decides some of the government’s biggest purchases like naval ships and fighter jets.

Ahmed Hussen is minister of families, children and social development. He oversees the massive government spending on individual transfers like the $21-billion Canada Child Benefit program, and the $40-billion 10-year national housing strategy.

Catherine McKenna became minister of infrastructure and communities — and traded the regulatory role she held at environment for the power to shape how $180 billion over the next 10 years is spent on building, repairing and “greening” the country’s roads, buildings, and public transit systems.

“This is a major economic file,” she said in an interview. It can include anything from community and recreation centres to other types of infrastructure, and McKenna said getting money out the door will be important, but so will be spending it in the right way. “Certainly we need to deliver for Canadians and that’s going to be a top priority,” she said. “But there’s a requirement for a climate lens on all of our infrastructure spends. We committed to be net zero (carbon emissions) by 2050 so when you build you need to be thinking about that.”

Montreal MP Melanie Joly, whom Trudeau demoted in the last mandate, has been rehabilitated and is minister of economic development (and keeps her previous responsibility for official languages promotion). A former commercial litigation lawyer, Joly is in charge of six regional economic development agencies and about $1.2 billion in spending a year. She’ll be aided by six parliamentary secretaries, MPs from those regions she hopes.

“I think what we are looking at is a form of decentralization, of being able to have our ears on the ground to know exactly what people are thinking, making sure that people are getting the right investments for their communities,” Joly said in an interview.

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Professor Donald Savoie, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the Université de Moncton, shrugged off the rebranding and renaming of an array of ministries. “That’s the fashion of the day. Look, we’ve seen that over the past 40 years. Every couple of years there’s a new fashion that comes in…that will have a two- or three-year lifespan if history is a guide, marginal impact, no portfolio, little to draw from.”

Savoie is more interested in what Trudeau signalled in terms of which regions have power and influence at his table.

Trudeau has put 16 Ontario MPs at the cabinet table, 11 of whom are from the Toronto area; and 11 from Quebec including the prime minister; none from Alberta and the Atlantic region dropped a minister, down to four who have a seat in the inner circle.

Savoie says Trudeau should not put a Montrealer — and before that a Toronto minister — in charge of Atlantic Canada’s development agency. And he is deeply worried about how the western provinces will be heard at the cabinet table. He accepts the prime minister’s argument he has no choice but to deal with the caucus that voters sent him, but said that doesn’t take away from the problem.

“The voices from Western Canada will be muted,” he said. “The voices from Atlantic Canada will be a lot quieter, so it’s going to be far more of an Ontario- and Quebec-centric government than it’s ever been.”

Trudeau certainly signalled Quebec is a political priority for him. He made Montreal MP Pablo Rodriguez his government leader in the House of Commons where he must steer bills through a minority Parliament vote-by-vote. And Trudeau appointed Rodriguez as his political lieutenant for Quebec, the only region to get one.

Savoie urges the government to “be careful.”

“I think Ottawa is playing with fire when it comes to national unity. They’re still in the old mindset that national unity is only about Quebec; it is not only about Quebec. And that new government (unveiled) yesterday tells me the same view is going to prevail. That’s risky.”

If national unity is the most important file, Trudeau told the whole country this week that in his eyes the most influential minister will be the bilingual former journalist Chrystia Freeland.

And if titles convey power, she’s got a lot. Trudeau named her second-in-command as Deputy Prime Minister, resurrecting an official designation used occasionally by prime ministers in the past 40 years, but set aside by Stephen Harper and Trudeau until now.

Freeland is also Trudeau’s intergovernmental affairs minister. That office comes with a couple of dozen public service support staff under the umbrella of the Privy Council Office, the prime minister’s department, with separate offices in downtown Ottawa. Usually it facilitates government conferences but has no big budget. Under Freeland that looks certain to change. In addition to those roles Freeland is vice-chair of a cabinet committee chaired by Trudeau called “agenda, results and communications.” Additionally, she will chair another key cabinet committee on economy and the environment.

Trudeau said he will lean on Freeland to navigate the “large issues” like energy and the environment that require the Liberal government “to engage in a strong and positive way with governments, different orders of government right across the country.” In front of all his other newly-sworn ministers, he heaped praise on Freeland as someone he worked well with during the NAFTA renegotiation — a file for which she will still retain responsibility even though she hands off the foreign affairs job to François-Philippe Champagne.

Freeland told CTV’s Power Play that she does have powers in her new role. “I did not take on this job to be a spokesmodel.”

Savoie doesn’t doubt that. But the way he sees it the Trudeau cabinet, like so many governments before him, Liberal and Conservative, continues a trend of centralized decision-making, and all the tweaks to the machinery of government, the new titles, and the lip service paid to giving the regions a voice don’t change that.

“The centralization of power is now so ingrained that it would take one heck of a wrench of the wheel to turn it around,” he said, “And it’s not in the interest of the prime minister to turn it around.”

Savoie said Freeland and Trudeau’s longtime friend and confidante Dominic Leblanc, chair of the operations committee, will be at the centre with an eye on everything, but “it will be the prime minister and his immediate courtiers that will still run the show.”

Tonda MacCharles





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