Skip to main content
jeffrey simpson

Eager, of course. Enthusiastic, naturally. Inexperienced, largely so, starting with the Prime Minister. Activist, by inclination. Men and women, equal numbers. Grand ambitions, they come with the territory for any new cabinet such as the one sworn in Wednesday.

There is the platform on which these Liberals ran, and then there is the reality they will now confront, the two not necessarily being congruent, such as bringing a completely arbitrary, campaign-driven promise of 25,000 refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries to Canada before year's end.

And there will be issues none of them could have foreseen, such as an immediate demand for a huge infusion of federal money for Bombardier Inc., the aerospace company that has mismanaged itself into a deep fiscal hole.

What a cabinet – any cabinet – looks like on paper in the first full flush of novelty, and how it performs in practice cannot be predicted. There are a half-dozen ministers with some federal cabinet experience, although their political and administrative effectiveness in years gone by varied considerably. For the rest, they either have only seen issues through the prism of being in opposition – a notoriously distorting prism for any group – or they have never been in federal politics before. So they deserve, as does the government, time to settle in, set priorities, confront complexity, get to know each other, understand how the Prime Minister works and what he expects of them, and begin to perform.

Ministers will be given, for a while, the benefit of the doubt that comes with a government of good intentions, "sunny ways," inexperienced but eagerness to learn, uplifting rhetoric and the early fulfilling of certain promises from the campaign. A change of tone will help after the sourness of the Harper years, as will the unwinding of some of that government's less desirable policies.

How long this honeymoon will last must remain unknown, but with a majority in Parliament, the government will find itself in the happy position that few Canadians will care much what the opposition parties say for quite a while. Predictably, various interest groups welcomed new ministers to their portfolios, and affixed to their good wishes a series of initiatives the interest groups would like to see implemented tomorrow if possible, or next week if necessary.

There were startling absences, born of limiting the number of ministers and ensuring gender equity. One wonders if Bill Blair, the former police chief in Toronto, or retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie, the former head of the army, would have allowed themselves to be so ardently wooed by Justin Trudeau and his team had they known that the backbenches awaited them. It is one thing to be left out of cabinet and to have understood that such a fate was inevitable; it is human nature to react differently when the assumption of a cabinet place was entirely and justifiably different.

There were also difficult and high-profile portfolios handed to newcomers: Bill Morneau from Toronto in finance; Jody Wilson-Raybould from Vancouver in justice, Maryam Monsef from Peterborough, Ont., in democratic institutions; Jane Philpott from Markham, Ont., in health; Harjit Sajjan from Vancouver in national defence; Mélanie Joly from Montreal in Canadian Heritage (one of whose first jobs will be to kill or move the Conservative-inspired Memorial to the Victims of Communism in Ottawa.)

As for the Prime Minister himself, Mr. Trudeau's inexperience wielding power is nothing unusual – for Conservatives. Liberals Louis St. Laurent, Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, John Turner, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin had all been in cabinet and developed their own ideas about how it should work before becoming prime minister. John Diefenbaker, Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper, from the other party, did not have the benefit of watching and participating in cabinet before running one.

The Liberals ran on a campaign theme of change and hope, and they will be given time by people of goodwill to bring both. Stylistically, they are off to a good start. The diversity of the new cabinet should reinforce their campaign theme, as will the youthfulness of the Prime Minister.

One wonders if Trudeau the Younger has read the books about Trudeau the Elder, who arrived on the magic carpet of Trudeaumania in 1968, but by 1970 was in political trouble and very nearly lost the 1972 election. There might be lessons there.