In The Media

What happened to Justin Trudeau’s all-star Cabinet?

by John Geddes (feat. David Perry)*Affiliated

May 8, 2017

A single episode, no matter how demoralizing, shouldn’t be inflated into the story of a whole government. Still, the pummelling Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan took in question period and beyond—after he had to apologize for untruthful boasting about his role in a military operation more than a decade ago in Afghanistan—highlighted a problem far broader than Sajjan’s troubles: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau badly needs a few Cabinet ministers to start looking like stars.

Sajjan was supposed to be one. Appointing the rookie Vancouver MP as defence minister was among the bold moves that helped define Trudeau’s heady early weeks in power in the fall of 2015. The conventional choice for Defence would have been another newcomer to politics, retired general Andrew Leslie, who had led the army in which Sajjan merely served as a reserve officer. But Sajjan was the far cooler pick: a former Vancouver police detective, decorated for intelligence work against the Taliban in Kandahar. Even better, a photo of him in wraparound shades and battle gear soon circulated, leading his new social-media fans to admiringly dub him Trudeau’s “badass” minister.

His sudden downgrading from badass to hangdog came after he bragged, in a speech delivered in India, about being the “architect” of Operation Medusa, a 2006 combat offensive in Kandahar. Sajjan has been credited with cultivating valuable sources in Afghan villages for that operation, but he didn’t plan it. He apologized, over and over, after being called out for claiming he did, but the damage was done. The deeper problem for Trudeau, though, isn’t Sajjan’s embarrassment—it’s his diminished credibility just as he’s expected to release the results of a sweeping defence policy review.

Trudeau would have been counting on Sajjan to be a strong voice on that critical file. Now, he’s a political liability. Charting a path forward for the Canadian Forces, especially on multi-billion-dollar military equipment buys like fighter jets and ships, is among the Liberal government’s most difficult tasks. Others are piling up: an indefinitely delayed overhaul of access-to-information laws, the high-stakes economic innovation agenda, the reform of controversial national security laws, a confusing tangle of First Nations spending commitments, and more.

Among close watchers of federal policy, this spring feels like a turning point—and the moment when certain ministers must rise to the challenge. University of Ottawa law professor Craig Forcese is an expert on national security policy, and he sees the Trudeau government as having had a slow start overall. “The Liberals had been out of power for a while, the MPs are quite young, a lot without parliamentary experience,” Forcese says. “I think they had a long transition period.”

But he contends that Trudeau’s team still have time before the 2019 election to prove they can get things done. “To their credit, they consulted a lot, they took a long time to figure stuff out,” Forcese says. “The next two years are going to be the proof in the pudding. Was it distracting consultation or was it meaningful consultation that’s going to produce useful outcomes?”

Back when Trudeau introduced his Cabinet—in that sun-dappled group stroll to the swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall—he seemed to be fielding a star-studded lineup to deliver those outcomes. But, at the mid-mandate turning point, where Forcese and others see the Liberals now arriving, it’s not easy to single out effective policy performers who also connect with Canadians in large numbers.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau, for instance, might be respected by business leaders, but he’s hardly a gifted communicator. A Nanos Research poll conducted in early April found that only five per cent of Canadians held a solidly positive view of the budget he delivered in March. Back before budget day, the government tried trotting out Jean-Yves Duclos, the previously low-profile social development minister, to pitch the Liberal vision for the middle class, but the former Laval University economics professor was panned by pundits for muddled presentation and failed to make any discernible public impression.

Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland has an enviable reputation in elite international circles—sometimes reaching them through Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN—but hasn’t displayed much knack, so far, for delivering a message to folks back home. Trudeau promoted Freeland to Global Affairs from the International Trade portfolio, on the strength of her success in securing a Canada-European Union trade deal, in his Cabinet shuffle early this year. That was also when he demoted another once-promising rookie, Maryam Monsef, from Democratic Institutions to Status of Women.

If Monsef’s fumbling of the electoral reform file cost her, Trudeau also wears the breaking of his signature campaign promise to change the way Canadians elect MPs. Failure to make good on a conspicuous promise tends to inflict more damage to a politician’s reputation than anything short of outright scandal. Treasury Board President Scott Brison is now in jeopardy of being tagged for under-delivering. Brison had a low-profile 2016, but Liberal officials actively touted him last fall as a player to watch for 2017. He was slated to begin delivering on the Liberals’ pledge to dramatically overhaul federal access-to-information rules.

Shining more light on federal documents and data was supposed to remind Canadians of the difference between the new, sunny Trudeau way and the old, shadowy Stephen Harper system. As part of a wider access-to-information overhaul, the Liberals ran on extending the law to cover, as never before, what goes on in the offices of the prime minister and Cabinet. “Canadians elected us with a mandate to make government more open and transparent,” Brison declared last spring.

By this spring, however, he was applying the brakes. After earlier pledging to speed ahead with the easiest changes in 2017 and then go on to broader reforms, Brison switched to offering no timeline at all. Among his worries: bureaucrats won’t give ministers candid advice if they know it will later be made public. “We want to ensure,” Brison recently told CBC, “that we do not in any way impede the ability for public servants with expertise in an area to provide government with that fearless advice.”

But Suzanne Legault, the federal information commissioner, isn’t buying his excuses for gearing down, calling it “extremely disappointing” that the Liberals seem only now to be discovering stumbling blocks that have been there all along. “These issues have been on the table and have been debated. They have been researched, there have been many reports,” she told Maclean’s. “So it is complex, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done, and it should be done on a timely basis.”

How far Brison goes with his reforms, and when, is now anyone’s guess. Sometimes, gauging this government’s level of commitment is tricky. Government House Leader Bardish Chagger, for instance, seemed determined to “modernize” how the House runs when she released a discussion paper in March that proposed ways to speed up parliamentary business. Facing entirely predictable resistance from the opposition parties, Chagger backed off on the more contentious parts in April.

When money is already set aside, though, action is pretty much assured. Before Parliament breaks for the summer, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains is set to launch a competition for consortiums of companies, universities and other institutions to vie for a slice of $950 million over five years, already budgeted to support what the government is calling “superclusters.”

Choosing three to five superclusters is the backbone of the Liberals’ bid to reassure Canadians that the jobs of the future are coming. The goal is to create new private-sector-led research groups that will turn innovation into money-making products. Bains talks up advanced manufacturing, the agri-food sector, and environmental, digital and health science technologies. But will any of this strike Canadians as the answer to their economic worries? After all, Budget 2016’s more tangible measures—a big boost in federal parental benefits and a modest trim in the middle-income tax bracket—are starting to feel like they happened in the distant past.

It’s up to Bains to sell superclusters as being about people’s jobs, not just in the interests of corporations and research institutions. He contends it won’t be all that hard. “It’s really easy to articulate,” he says, “when we talk about it through the lens of how [Canadians] deal with their anxieties, in terms of the skills they need to succeed today, about the skill set their children may need to succeed going forward.” In an interview early this month, he said the supercluster competition will be announced within the next few weeks.

At least Bains comes to his first big test as a rookie minister without any serious baggage. Sajjan must lug the Operation Medusa affair onto centre stage when he steps out to explain his defence review. Even without that liability, he faced an extraordinarily tough task. David Perry, a leading analyst of defence spending at the Ottawa-based Canadian Global Affairs Institute, says Morneau’s recent budget left no room for sizable military spending hikes.

And that’s a problem for Sajjan, since recent analysis shows a wide gap between what the Canadian Forces is supposed to do and how much it’s given to spend. Perry points to the need for thousands of new recruits in growing areas of concern like surveillance and cybersecurity. He also sees a $1-billion to $2-billion annual gap in the Forces’ capital budget for hardware like jets and ships, and that doesn’t begin to address the problem of aging base buildings and other infrastructure.

That means Sajjan must either squeeze more money out of Morneau, which isn’t likely, or cut back on some military roles, which is never easy. “If one of those things doesn’t happen, they are going to be left with an unsquared circle in terms of matching resources to policy direction,” Perry says. As if that weren’t enough, Sajjan is also under pressure to finally announce a peacekeeping mission somewhere in Africa, for which the Liberals promised up to 600 troops last August, but still haven’t settled on where to send them.

With the wounded rookie Sajjan looking like an iffy standard-bearer on national defence, Trudeau must be counting on a error-free performance by a veteran on national security—Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, the most experienced hand in Cabinet, is responsible for revamping the former Conservative government’s Bill C-51, a suite of highly controversial anti-terrorism measures.

Back in the spring of 2015, Trudeau’s decision not to oppose C-51 outright caused him a lot of political grief. Opponents protested many of C-51’s elements, like the way it expanded the Canadian Security Intelligence Service’s powers, allowing CSIS to disrupt terrorist threats, not just gather intelligence on them. Goodale put out a policy paper on national security late last summer, held consultations through to December and is expected to propose concrete changes later this spring.

He has been characteristically cautious about revealing his strategy in advance. Forcese hopes Goodale moves first on the most obvious measures, such as putting limits around those new CSIS powers. But he worries the government might be tempted to bite off too much too early, perhaps by trying to take steps on the much more complex privacy issues surrounding how security services might be allowed to gain access to encrypted digital communications.

But Forcese views Goodale as an uncommonly strong minister, especially since his responsibilities range so widely, from the border to the RCMP to just about any emergency. “Think of what he’s had to do,” he says. “This time last year it was wildfires in Alberta. Now it’s the Trump administration, illegal border crossings. Everything that’s on the front pages falls in his portfolio.” If he needs a bit more time on C-51, Forcese adds, that’s understandable.

Goodale alone stands out for garnering unequivocally positive reviews, helped by a long tenure that’s earned him the benefit of the doubt. With action pending this spring on a raft of major files, Trudeau must be hoping the old pro’s steady style—not Sajjan’s blunder, Monsef’s stumbles, Chagger’s retreat or the more routinely underwhelming performances of some other ministers—sets the tone for what’s shaping up as a pivotal political season.

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