Conveying renewal and stability at the same time is a neat trick, if you can manage it.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tried to do both with a cabinet shuffle that featured a slew of new faces on Wednesday, all while relying even more heavily on a quartet of tested ministers – and likely future leadership contenders – to carry the load of a government living on borrowed time.
With seven new and inexperienced ministers added to cabinet, including Toronto MP Arif Virani in the high-profile Justice portfolio, and so many unsteady ones shuffled to new portfolios, the Big Four contingent of Chrystia Freeland, François-Philippe Champagne, Mélanie Joly and Anita Anand will loom larger than ever in Ottawa.
These four are the pillars of this government. One of them is likely to emerge as the successor to Mr. Trudeau as Liberal Leader, unless former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney manages to grab this (poisoned) chalice out from under his or her chin. It could all happen sooner than anyone in Ottawa seems to expect.
For all of Mr. Trudeau’s insistence that he is staying to fight in the next election, his future looks precarious. An Abacus Data poll released Wednesday had the Conservatives running 10 percentage points ahead of the Liberals; Canadians’ desire for a change of government is much stronger than their reservations about Tory Leader Pierre Poilievre.
Moving Ms. Freeland out of the Finance portfolio would have sent a clearer message that the government is serious about tackling the cost of living and housing affordability crises keeping so many voters up at night. But doing so might have been seen as a disavowal, and hence a brake on her leadership ambitions. Leaving her in the top economic portfolio allows her to chart her political future on her own terms.
Mr. Champagne keeps his job as Innovation Minister, and cheerleader-in-chief for the government’s industrial strategy, while Ms. Joly remains Foreign Affairs Minister, providing continuity in a portfolio that has been held by five different ministers since 2015. Their high profiles in Quebec mean either one of them could emerge as a leadership frontrunner.
Ms. Anand’s move out of the Defence portfolio is premature. For all her competence, she had yet to produce enduring results in changing the military’s culture or improving procurement. The defence policy review promised in early 2022 has yet to materialize. Canada’s reputation as a defence free-rider has increased on her watch as other NATO members dramatically boost military spending in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
At the Treasury Board, however, Ms. Anand will have a chance to develop her economic credentials, and bolster her leadership pitch. The move also positions her as a potential future Finance minister if Ms. Freeland decides to leave Ottawa before the next election.
Sean Fraser’s lateral move from Immigration to Housing confirms the Nova Scotia MP’s status as a rising star in Liberal ranks. But the country’s housing crisis is too complex for Ottawa alone to solve, and Mr. Fraser has had a hand in creating the problem. His signature initiative – boosting annual targets above 500,000 new permanent residents – will continue to put upward pressure on housing prices and rents. Talk about awkward.
It will now fall to the understated Marc Miller to defend Ottawa’s immigration policies in his home province of Quebec, where they are denounced by provincial politicians, including Premier François Legault, as a threat to the survival of the French language and Québécois culture. The Liberal base in English Quebec and in multiethnic Montreal remains intact, but no Liberal seat is safe elsewhere in the province, save perhaps that of Mr. Champagne.
Pascale St-Onge’s promotion to the Heritage portfolio is well-deserved. She handled her unexpectedly eventful (and not in a good way, thanks to Hockey Canada’s implosion) stint as a rookie Sports minister like a seasoned pro. As a former union rep for journalists and other media employees in Quebec, don’t expect her to back down on Bill C-18, the legislation that aims to make Facebook and Google pay to link to news articles. She won her Brome-Missisquoi riding by fewer than 200 votes in 2021.
Diane Lebouthillier retains a seat at the cabinet table, moving from the Revenue portfolio to Fisheries and Oceans, mainly because changes to the boundaries of her Gaspésie-Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine riding favour the Bloc Québécois in the next election.
She is not the only underperforming minister to survive this shuffle. Harjit Sajjan (who moves from International Development to Emergency Preparedness), Bill Blair (Emergency Preparedness to Defence) and Ahmed Hussen (Housing to International Development) also managed to escape the axe for reasons that only the folks in the PMO could come up with.