Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his inner circle are taking more time than they did in 2015 to choose a new cabinet — and are bringing in trusted advisers from the West and Quebec to avoid repeating past mistakes.
Trudeau’s first cabinet, sworn in on Nov. 4, 2015 — less than three weeks after the election — was filled with new faces and buoyed by optimism and an ambitious campaign platform. But that optimism belied a front bench that was woefully short on practical political knowledge.
“Some of them had remarkably diverse backgrounds, but many of them did not have much political experience,” said David Zussman, an adjunct professor in the department of public administration at the University of Victoria. He headed up Jean Chrétien’s transition team when he was prime minister.
This time, the Trudeau team is stretching out the cabinet selection process. The election was Oct. 21; cabinet won’t be sworn in until Nov. 20.
In 2015, the Liberals were coming out of a surprise electoral victory and ten years out of power — and were unprepared in many ways.
“That’s one of the things we saw … how difficult it is, really, to move from being an untested politician to an effective minister,” said Zussman.
Trudeau’s first mandate saw several high profile missteps and ethical lapses. His decision to vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island and the pressure he put on his justice minister to intervene in the criminal prosecution of engineering giant SNC-Lavalin caused the office of the federal ethics commissioner to conclude that the prime minister had violated the Conflict of Interest Act twice.
The SNC Lavalin controversy, of course, led two cabinet ministers to resign in protest and may have come close to derailing Trudeau’s re-election bid.
Early cabinet problems
But even before those scandals erupted, there were problems with some of Trudeau’s first cabinet picks: ministers ill-suited to their portfolios, or unable to get things done, or simply unable to communicate what they were doing to the public. Those problems led to cabinet shuffles.
Six months into his first term in office, Nunavut MP Hunter Tootoo left the Liberal caucus and his position as fisheries minister, citing “addiction issues.” He later acknowledged he’d had an inappropriate relationship with a female staffer.
In early 2017, Trudeau replaced his foreign affairs minister, Stéphane Dion, with Chrystia Freeland. Dion was seen as an awkward fit for the portfolio, especially after the arrival of President Donald Trump ramped up tensions in the diplomatic relationship with the U.S.
A year later, Trudeau’s sports minister, Kent Hehr, resigned over accusations of sexual harassment and of making insensitive remarks toward thalidomide survivors.
“Cabinet-making is kind of a mix of trying to project a reality and … [a] fantasy sport. I think Justin Trudeau hoped he had the perfect fantasy team in 2015 for his cabinet,” said Tim Powers, a political strategist with Summa Strategies and managing director of Abacus Data.
“You don’t know how people perform until they perform and they get the chance to do it. That’s why it becomes a bit of an art.”
It didn’t help that Trudeau himself lacked high-level political experience, said Zussman.
“The most experience he had in the cabinet room was when he was a four-year-old and his father was prime minister,” he said. “A lot of the problems the government has had within the cabinet … was that the prime minister created certain expectations among newly appointed cabinet ministers and those expectations didn’t always match with [how] he, in the end, thought it was going to operate.”
Some observers say those mismatched expectations led directly to the SNC Lavalin controversy and the departure of Jody Wilson-Raybould from both cabinet and, eventually, the Liberal caucus.
“I think the Wilson-Raybould episode probably was a watershed,” said Elly Alboim, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group. Alboim was a close adviser to former prime minister Paul Martin and was involved 2004 cabinet-making discussions.
“(This time) they will have to look at the degree to which they believe any prospective cabinet minister will be able to work with the centre, and work with colleagues and the vested interests they bring to the job,” he said.
The prime minister was found guilty of breaking the ethics law by trying to convince Wilson-Raybould to overrule a decision to deny SNC-Lavalin a deferred prosecution agreement. A DPA would have allowed SNC to avoid criminal prosecution. Wilson-Raybould had refused to overrule the prosecution service’s decision to not grant the company a DPA.
In January 2019, Wilson-Raybould was moved to the veterans’ ministry. Trudeau has denied the suggestion that the move was punishment for the SNC-Lavalin incident.
Alboim and Zussman both said another lesson the Trudeau Liberals should have learned by now is that new cabinet ministers need to be well-supported by experienced chiefs of staff, deputy ministers and policy advisers. That was not done consistently in 2015, they said.
Inexperience is no longer a problem
But after four years in government, and after more than a handful of cabinet shuffles, inexperience should no longer be a big factor for Trudeau’s people. The Liberals lost just two cabinet ministers to electoral defeat, so there is a decent pool of incumbent cabinet ministers and backbench MPs to choose from.
“At this point, you’re either very attuned to what works and what doesn’t work, or you’re blind to what works and what doesn’t work,” said Powers.
And Trudeau should have a better understanding of the skills and vulnerabilities of his team members than he did four years ago, said one former deputy chief of staff to a prime minister.
“They can see who is stronger and weaker on different things and they have much more to evaluate in terms of what are the necessary skills and the really important skills as they put their new cabinet forward,” said Michele Cadario, CEO of Vanguard Strategy. She worked for both Paul Martin and then-B.C. premier Christy Clark, helping with their transition teams.
Cadario said Trudeau’s decision to make gender parity in cabinet a priority in 2015 was a smart move, one that most observers expect to see repeated with his new cabinet.
Building a minority government cabinet
But if inexperience is no longer a major problem for the Liberals, other problems have emerged.
The Liberals are forming a minority government, meaning they will have to work with other parties to pass legislation and will no longer form the majority on committees that review legislation.
That calls for cabinet ministers who work well across party lines and who are good at governing, not simply campaigning.
It also means the position of House Leader — who, along with the Whip, ensures the government has the confidence of the House — is every bit as important as key portfolios like Finance and Foreign Affairs. A House Leader in a minority situation needs to be an experienced parliamentarian who maintains good relationships within the government caucus and with the opposition.
Ralph Goodale would have fit the bill nicely — if he hadn’t been defeated in his attempt at a ninth consecutive electoral win.
Which points to another challenge facing Trudeau’s Liberals: they have no MPs from Saskatchewan and Alberta.
“That’s got to be considered, not just in how you’re putting your cabinet together, but in terms of how you’re instructing your cabinet ministers, you’re instructing your government, and [how] you operate your government,” said Cadario.
Regional representation is one of the key restricting considerations for a prime minister building a cabinet. It often results in some MPs getting picked over others who might be just as qualified — simply because of the regions they represent. That can lead to grumbling within caucus — which could be dangerous to a minority government.
Managing caucus expectations
“If you’re first act is to demote or dismiss a number of cabinet ministers, you are creating a dissident group within your caucus,” said Alboim. “But if you don’t promote the (backbenchers) that deserve promotion, they are going to reach the conclusion that it’s never going to happen and they become dissidents.”
Observers say it’s hard for any transition team choosing a cabinet to know every possible damaging secret held by prospective ministers if they’re not willing to reveal them ahead of time, or if they don’t believe there is anything to reveal.
Alboim suggested that, these days, such surprises are less likely.
“Because people now see how relentless the scrutiny is and how far back it goes. So the chances of somebody getting appointed with some sort of problem in their past no one knows about, I think, is diminished.”
Diminished, but not eliminated — as Trudeau’s own blackface scandal during the election campaign demonstrated completely.