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Canada's Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, February 22, 2016. Kirsten Mercer, a former Kathleen Wynne adviser, was the official selected to run Ms. Wilson-Raybould's office; however, she has been shuffled out. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Canada's Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, February 22, 2016. Kirsten Mercer, a former Kathleen Wynne adviser, was the official selected to run Ms. Wilson-Raybould's office; however, she has been shuffled out. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

ADAM RADWANSKI

Trudeau’s empowered cabinet struggling to settle in Add to ...

It took Justin Trudeau’s Liberals the better part of four months, after winning office, to finish hiring chiefs of staff for their ministers. And already, they’ve decided at least a couple of those hires didn’t work out.

Recently, the officials tasked with running the offices of Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef – former Kathleen Wynne adviser Kirsten Mercer and lawyer and former diplomat Maxime Dea, respectively – have been shuffled out. Another staffer in Ms. Monsef’s office, Ali Salam, has been moved up to take Mr. Dea’s place; Cyrus Reporter, a senior aide to the Prime Minister, is doing double duty at Justice until a replacement for Ms. Mercer is chosen.

Liberals are quick to say the rapid departures were not a reflection on Ms. Mercer or Mr. Dea, just the wrong fit with their novice ministers’ personalities or working styles, and there is no reason to disbelieve them. But what they probably did reflect is the new government’s early struggles to manage a cabinet both more empowered than the ones that preceded it and relatively lacking in political experience.

Mr. Trudeau has made a point of giving his ministers much more room to do their jobs – from running their own departments to hammering out policies at the cabinet table – than did Stephen Harper, who was more inclined to have the Prime Minister’s Office stage-manage major decisions. Still, there are limits to how much a 30-member cabinet featuring 18 rookie MPs will be left to its own devices. So the Liberals are really counting on senior staff, the hiring of whom has largely been directed by the PMO, to help steer ministers as they learn their way around Ottawa.

The catch is that much of the senior staff are also still learning their way around Ottawa, because their party’s decade in the political wilderness left a deficit of experience. This helps explain why Ottawa’s backrooms are now disproportionately filled by veterans of Queen’s Park, where a friendly Liberal government has long been in power.) And no matter that staff’s attributes, it’s anyone’s guess how they’ll mesh with ministers who are unknown political quantities.

Ministers’ potential pitfalls during this period are multitudinous. One of those – the difficulty of providing clear answers on key files while only just learning how to navigate their bureaucracies, their stakeholders and each other – is obvious to anyone who has been watching the government’s early months closely.

Another danger, potentially even more worrisome for the Liberals, is controversies born of lack of familiarity with federal ethical requirements or expectations. A small taste of this was offered by a flare-up around Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s husband registering as a lobbyist shortly after last fall’s election. And some veteran Ottawa lobbyists have recently noted, anecdotally, that ministers’ offices don’t yet seem up to speed on correct protocol in dealing with them.

Not that the challenges of an empowered cabinet are limited to those who haven’t been there before. Of all ministers, the one who currently seems to be aggravating fellow Liberals the most is Stéphane Dion – not just because of his confusing messaging around the government’s controversial arms deal with Saudia Arabia, but also because of familiar complaints that he does not play well with colleagues and is stepping all over their turf as they try to get settled in.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of rookies who by the account of government insiders are taking the ball and running with it. Among others, PMO sources are effusive about the early efforts of Health Minister Jane Philpott and Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, the latter of whom was this week named to helm a committee on the highly sensitive matter of defence procurement. Whether they’re experienced or not, it can be extremely difficult for outsiders to judge how individual ministers are performing, since their public communications are only a sliver of their job. While Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan seemingly struggled to explain the changes to Canada’s military mission in Iraq, for instance, the view within government seems to be that out of the media’s view, he has ably been stickhandling his fraught files.

But in a cabinet with this little experience, given a fair amount of rope, it is all but inevitable there will be a few busts. The Liberals did well at candidate-recruitment before last year’s campaign, so there are plenty of qualified replacements now waiting on their backbenches if Mr. Trudeau proves cold-blooded about replacing ministers who don’t work out.

This government’s first cabinet shuffle, though, is a good ways off. For now, the Liberals are still working on giving ministers the supports they need to succeed. The recent behind-the-scene moves suggest it’s still a work in progress.

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Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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