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Some advice for the Liberals as a new leader ponders his shadow cabinet

Justin Trudeau

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

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Casting ahead – far, far ahead – let's consider what Justin Trudeau's shadow cabinet might look like.

Yes, it's true that the Papineau MP is not even leader yet. (That happens Sunday.) And critics portfolios for a third-place party are hardly of vital interest. (Your correspondent had to consult a list to learn who is currently doing what.)

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But just as cabinet-making is a major first test for a new prime minister, so too constructing the shadow cabinet reveals much about an opposition leader and his caucus: who is in and who is out; what portfolios have the highest priority for the new leader; most important, how that leader deals with the challenges of conflicting egos, former opponents and geographical, gender and ethnic considerations.

It's a tough job. But sooner or later, Justin Trudeau will have to do it. So let's give him a hand, shall we?

As is so often the case in politics, problem and opportunity are opposite sides of the same coin. The last election returned only 34 Liberal MPs – a shallow well from which to draw.

Furthermore, many of those MPs are veterans, making it virtually impossible to put a fresh new face on the party in the House of Commons.

But the depth of experience is considerable. Outgoing interim leader Bob Rae is the former premier of Ontario. Former leader Stéphane Dion is also available. About half the caucus has served in cabinet, including Ralph Goodale (Finance), Irwin Cotler (Justice), Judy Foote (several portfolios in Newfoundland and Labrador), Judy Sgro (Immigration) and Joyce Murray (Environment in British Columbia).

One piece of advice Mr. Trudeau might want to consider is to do nothing for several months. There are two reasons for this. One is the Labrador by-election. It is set for May 13 and the Conservatives may well lose it, given that incumbent MP Peter Penashue, embroiled in campaign finance abuses, resigned from cabinet and his seat in an effort to secure a fresh mandate.

Former Newfoundland and Labrador Liberal leader Yvonne Jones is favoured to beat him. If she does, Mr. Trudeau will want to give her a reasonably prominent portfolio to highlight this bit of good news.

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More important, Stephen Harper has said he plans a major cabinet shuffle this summer. Mr. Trudeau might want to hold off any shuffles of his own, until he sees who is doing what.

Some Liberal MPs can make a claim to writing their own ticket. First among them is Mr. Rae, who has earned high marks for his stewardship of the party during the interregnum. His deep knowledge of foreign policy probably entitles him to the critic's role, if he wants it.

Former leader Stéphane Dion won't want to be seen upstaging the new leader, but is still entitled to a senior position. Marc Garneau has a chit to cash, since the Montreal MP eased Mr. Trudeau's passage to power by dropping out of the leadership race. Industry, perhaps?

Joyce Murray, despite causing Mr. Trudeau grief with her campaign for co-operation with the NDP, has supporters of her own. He would be wise not to consign her to too minor a role. She would make a good fit in Environment.

Except Kirsty Duncan is already in Environment, and is impressing both sides of the House with her intelligence and political smarts. If she does leave the portfolio, Mr. Trudeau may want to find another prominent role for her – Health, perhaps, which means giving veteran MP Hedy Fry something else to do.

Dominic LeBlanc is a close friend of Mr. Trudeau's, and did him a large favour by not seeking the leadership – he could have mounted a serious challenge. But while promotion is his for the asking, Mr. Leblanc is comfortable in the role of House Leader, and Mr. Trudeau will probably want to keep him there while he learns the ropes of managing a caucus and performing effectively in the House.

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Ted Hsu has much to commend him. A rookie MP, he held Kingston and the Islands for the Liberals despite the Tory onslaught of 2011. He has a PhD in physics from Princeton, and is a rare example of a new Liberal face. He did himself no favours, though, by supporting first Marc Garneau and then Joyce Murray. His fate will, if nothing else, tell us something about Mr. Trudeau's ability to forgive and forget.

There is much else to consider. International Trade will be a crucial portfolio, as the Liberals consider their response to an expected European Union trade agreement. That deal and the Trans Pacific Partnership could weaken or eliminate the supply management protections on dairy and poultry, giving new prominence to the Agriculture critic's job.

So, much to sort out, though there's no rush in sorting it. It will be interesting to watch how this young new leader manages the egos and interests of his caucus – the first, no doubt, of many challenges to come.

John Ibbitson is the chief political writer in Ottawa.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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