What to watch for as Trudeau unveils his new cabinet today

CBC with Melanee Thomas 20 November 2019

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will unveil his new cabinet today — an expanded team of ministers to steer the minority Liberal government’s legislative priorities and work to calm regional tensions.

The new front bench will be larger in size than the last 34-member cabinet. Trudeau already has confirmed the revamped cabinet will have gender parity. What’s not clear is exactly how this cabinet will represent Alberta and Saskatchewan, two western provinces where the Liberals found themselves shut out in the Oct. 21 election.

University of Toronto political scientist Peter Loewen said a minority government calls for ministers who are quick on their feet and capable of working across party lines.

“It’s going to be difficult to sequence legislation. It’s going to be difficult to bargain with parties case-by-case on how to get legislation through in a way that is acceptable to the parties, [that] doesn’t make them lose too much face but also keeps the government going,” he said.

“So having ministers that are sensitive to that and are attuned to that is going to be a pretty important medium-term priority.”

CBC-Radio Canada has confirmed some of the appointments that will be announced today:

  • François-Philippe Champagne will become Canada’s new foreign affairs minister.
  • Jonathan Wilkinson will be the new environment minister.
  • Pablo Rodriguez will be named government House leader.
  • Steven Guilbeault will be the new heritage minister.

Seamus O’Regan is expected to move from Indigenous services to natural resources. As an MP from Newfoundland and Labrador, O’Regan represents an oil-producing province.

The cabinet swearing-in ceremony will take place at Rideau Hall beginning at 1:30 p.m. ET. CBCNews.ca and CBC News Network will have special coverage beginning at noon ET.

Here are five things to watch for:

Size matters

Trudeau is expected to increase the number of ministers in his cabinet, which will be a mix of seasoned politicians and fresh faces.

The last Liberal cabinet had 34 ministers.

Loewen said it makes sense for a minority government to increase the number of cabinet ministers and spread the workload across multiple portfolios, to ensure ministers can keep up.

“They had some notable legislative successes in the last Parliament, but they also had some ones where they really had trouble moving things through. I think things are going to be more difficult with the Senate, not easier. So spreading ministers less thin is (a) secondary consideration,” he said.

Stickhandling a minority government

The position of government House leader takes on heightened importance in a minority Parliament, as the government works to win support from other parties to pass legislation and stay in power.

The House leader’s job is to negotiate with other parties to advance the government’s agenda.

Loewen said it will be a key position, since the House leader will have to find common ground with opposition parties on a case-by-case basis and demonstrate the “personal and political sensitivity” needed to work well with people.

A minority government is more vulnerable than a majority one, of course — but that doesn’t necessarily mean the government could fall at any moment.

Lydia Miljan, a political science professor at the University of Windsor, said while it seems on the surface that the Liberals have their work cut out maintaining the confidence of the House, the government should be fairly safe for a while.

“Despite the rhetoric of (NDP Leader) Jagmeet Singh saying he’ll vote against the government if he needs to, everyone knows he doesn’t have the money to fight another election, and everyone knows he alone doesn’t hold the balance of power. So it’s kind of an empty threat,” she said.

The Conservatives need time to sort out their leadership issues and the resurgent Bloc Québécois will be in no rush to take another trip to the polls, Miljan said.

Provincial bridge-builder

Chrystia Freeland is moving out of the foreign affairs file. She’s expected to take on a crucial domestic role.

As one of the top performers in cabinet, Freeland could be tasked with a key domestic file such as intergovernmental affairs. Dealing with the premiers and boosting regional economies at a time of heightened national discord would test Freeland’s diplomatic skills.

She could also be tapped to take on a new role as deputy prime minister.

While Freeland represents a downtown Toronto riding, the federal government can point to her western roots; she’s an Alberta native born in Peace River.

Melanee Thomas of the University of Calgary said it would be wise to deploy Freeland in such a role. She has demonstrated deft diplomatic abilities in tough and unpredictable trade negotiations with the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, she said — abilities that would serve Freeland well now in dealing with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe.

Freeland’s communications skills put her in a position to take the federal government’s messaging on hot-button files like pipelines and climate change directly to residents of Saskatchewan and Alberta, said Thomas.

“What Freeland will have to do, and I think she is uniquely well-equipped to do it, is to negotiate and speak publicly about these things in such a way that sends clear messages to all three of those audiences,” she said.

Environmental leadership and regional unrest

During the election and after, the Liberals heard loud calls from concerned Canadians for bold action to tackle climate change. They also heard from anxious voters in Alberta and Saskatchewan frustrated with the federal carbon tax, the shortage of oil pipeline access and the depressed state of the energy sector.

The federal government’s challenge will be to reconcile these competing interests while upholding Canada’s international commitments on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s not clear if the environment and climate change portfolio will remain as one big file, or be split between two departments — one dealing with regulatory issues and another devoted to climate policy.

Canada and the world

Champagne will have his hands full overseeing the foreign affairs portfolio.

He’ll be responsible for pushing the new trilateral trade deal with the U.S. and Mexico past the finish line. He’ll also take on the troubled China file; diplomatic relations with Beijing have been in a deep freeze since last year’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou and the subsequent detention of two Canadian citizens there without charges.

Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole said Champagne has shown himself to be a reasonable person in the House of Commons and not an “over-the-top partisan.” But he said the new foreign affairs minister has tough challenges ahead.

“Canada’s reputation among many countries, including some close countries, has eroded considerably under Mr. Trudeau, so he’s got his work cut out for him,” he said. “And we really need to do it because we’re losing access to trade markets, we see the disputes with China where citizens are detained.”

Melanee Thomas is a political science professor at the University of Calgary.