In The Media

Reading the Trudeau government tea leaves

by George Petrolekas, David Perry and Ferry de Kerckhove

December 17, 2015

Like many Canadians and our media who tried to read the tea leaves of the new Cabinet by who was in, in what post, and equally who was not; so too have emissaries of friends, allies and adversaries tried to frame what this new government means.

This is entirely normal, particularly in advance of the new prime minister’s trips overseas to four international conferences in the last six weeks. Foreign leaders took their first personal measures of Mr. Trudeau. However, foreign emissaries are attempting to frame their respective government’s approaches to Canada as well, particularly in the aftermath of discussions in many bilateral meetings.

It isn’t only about divining how Canada will act internationally; all nations have interests in reciprocal trade and in many cases compete for major investments here in Canada. For example, will the new government be favourable to foreign investment in Canada, and in which sectors? Will Canadian naval shipbuilding be open to collaborative construction? Will Canada’s emphasis on climate translate into a move away from a resource-dependent economy, thereby disfavouring certain sectors and investments?

Internationally, beyond the headline items of Canada’s withdrawal from the ISIS mission, what will new approaches mean, and in what areas of the world? Understanding these issues help foreign governments understand where they might seek to collaborate. Beyond issues, understanding the personalities of various ministers is a hot topic of discussion too. As in the space between diplomatic engagement and leaders, ministers and their staffs will be the prime policy points of contact.

However, only two months into power and still in the midst of a transition while handling some very important promises such as the settlement of Syrian refugees, it is still far too early to divine many details. Perhaps why the Speech from the Throne was so short, long on vision but short on detail. The majority of ministries are still in the process of briefing their ministers let alone having barely begun the process of hiring key ministerial and prime ministerial staff.

It is still far too early to crystallize what grains of tea leaves fully mean, except in broad strokes. So far, this government has signaled that it will place a renewed emphasis on provincial/federal relations, the plight of indigenous peoples, care of veterans, climate change, enacting its promised tax changes, and honouring its refugee pledges.

There are, however, a series of appointments to come which will fill many blanks for Canadians and others.

First, a host of ambassadors need to be appointed, most importantly those to the United Nations, the United Kingdom, the United States and France. It will be telling if appointments are drawn from the diplomatic service, or from the political and business realms where ambassadors will be seen as more directly conveying the new government’s intents. How Whitehall, the Hill and the Élysée perceive ambassadorial access to the prime minister has much to do with the effectiveness.

The hiring of ministerial staffs, namely chiefs of staff and senior policy advisers, will be telling as well. In the previous government, appointments were often maligned, even by Conservative MPs with their references to the “kids in short pants.” Staff were seen to be hired for their ideological and political purity rather than for the generation of sound policy.

This often created frictions between the public service and ministerial staffs particularly in Foreign Affairs and Defence. The acme of good policy is often listening to things you don't wish to hear.

Thirty five Parliamentary Secretaries were named Dec. 2. In the previous government they often served as its public face. With increased openness from the new Cabinet, this may change, but these individuals still represent the next generation of potential cabinet appointees.

Finally, throughout the campaign, the Liberals promised a new style in the function of Parliament, empowering members of Parliament more, and giving real powers in legislative formation to the Commons' committee structure.

If committees are empowered as the new prime minister has suggested, then committee heads will be key players in how legislation is formed, altered and revised. Further, the party indicated it will create an all-party committee to oversee the operations of every department and agency with national security responsibilities. This would represent a significant change to Parliament’s role, and has the potential to greatly enhance the confidence in our security institutions.

George Petrolekas is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he served in Bosnia and Afghanistan and was an adviser to senior NATO commanders. David Perry is senior analyst with the CGAI. Ferry de Kerckhove served for many years in Canada’s foreign service, including terms as Canada’s high commissioner to Pakistan, ambassador to Indonesia and ambassador to Egypt.

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