Lori Turnbull is the director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University and the deputy editor of Canadian Government Executive magazine.
Back in 2015, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party ran on an ambitious platform that promised to do government differently. They proposed a fresh, modern take on what they defined as antiquated institutions: cabinet, the Senate, the electoral system and the appointments process.
The Liberals would go on to win a majority government, and in those early days, Mr. Trudeau spoke of his intent to employ a “government by cabinet” approach, which would trust and empower ministers to own their own files and do their jobs. He would support rather than script and second-guess the ministers in his gender-equal cabinet, whom he said he chose because of their personal and professional credentials rather than their loyalty to him or the Liberal Party. It would be on the basis of these qualities, he said, that he would pledge his confidence in his ministers.
But in that “antiquated” system of parliamentary governance in which we operate, the concept of “confidence” has tremendous significance. The legitimacy of a government ultimately depends on whether it holds the confidence of the elected legislature. Cabinet ministers serve in their roles as long as they enjoy the confidence of the Prime Minister. And while the meaning of confidence is hard to pin down with any degree of exactness, it is not achieved simply by meeting expectations with respect to competence or compliance with rules. Confidence goes deeper than that; it is synonymous with trust.
That’s relevant now, as we’ve been hearing a lot about confidence lately – and, in some cases, a possible lack thereof. A year after Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott resigned in connection with the SNC-Lavalin affair, with both citing a lack of confidence in the government’s handling of the issue, another high-profile cabinet minister – Bill Morneau, who has tended to the Canadian economy during the pandemic – announced Monday that he would be stepping down.
The finance minister’s departure comes amid probes by the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner and two standing House committees around a now-cancelled multimillion-dollar distribution arrangement between the federal government and WE Charity. Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau, who failed to recuse themselves from cabinet’s decision despite family ties to WE Charity, have been at the centre of the controversy. In recent weeks, Mr. Trudeau has assured Canadians that his crisis-time finance minister had his “full confidence.” Now, he’s headed for the door.
In his evening news conference, Mr. Morneau – rather than the Prime Minister himself, notably – told Canadians that he was not pushed out. From an optics perspective, a voluntary resignation is the only version of events that remaining cabinet ministers could hope to defend. After all, how could the Prime Minister fire his most senior minister for the same kinds of mistakes he is alleged to have made himself on the same file?
On the other hand, keeping Mr. Morneau around wasn’t working, either: The Prime Minister’s frequent expressions of confidence in him sounded forced. And Mr. Trudeau’s words would’ve been more reassuring had he not been himself involved in the WE situation and if he hadn’t begun a public courtship of former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney to assist with Canada’s economic recovery.
The WE scandal damaged Mr. Morneau’s reputation, but the fallout from that could have been managed. Still, it seemed to be the tipping point in the Prime Minister’s confidence in his finance minister, despite his ambitious visions of a new style of government.
The departures of Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott were noteworthy for how they expressed a lack of confidence in the Prime Minister, rather than the other way around. And with Mr. Morneau – left out in the cold as he watched his boss make inroads with Mr. Carney, but apparently still interested in public service as he prepares to run for secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development – there appeared to have been the same crisis of confidence.
For now, at least, Mr. Morneau will be replaced in the finance portfolio by Chrystia Freeland, the “minister of everything” in whom the Prime Minister clearly has boundless confidence. He has hers, too: When asked to comment on her boss’s role in WE Charity, she said she has “complete confidence” in Mr. Trudeau. Her appointment will surely help the government reset itself, but Mr. Morneau’s departure remains a loud statement on what confidence means in Justin Trudeau’s “government done differently.”
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