Dr. Lori Turnbull is Director and Associate Professor at the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University.
Earlier this week, there was a small but significant cabinet shuffle, triggered by Navdeep Bains’s decision to leave politics. His departure comes at a pivotal moment for the government and the country. As Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, he was poised to make an impact on Canada’s economic growth strategy in the months and years to come. Why leave now?
In a videotaped statement, Mr. Bains speaks of his desire to focus more of his energy on being a dad. He said, “Family is the most important thing in my life. They have sacrificed so much over the last 17 years. It’s time for me to put my family first.” Two years ago, almost to the exact day, Scott Brison did the same thing, announcing an immediate departure from the Liberal cabinet and a decision to end a long and successful political career to spend more time with his family, including his two young daughters.
Mr. Bains’s announcement seems to have been prompted by the prospect of a writ drop. Though no election is scheduled until October of 2023, there is much speculation that a federal vote will happen sometime this year and perhaps as early as the spring. The Liberal government is, after all, a minority government. There was a spirit of cooperation in Parliament in the early days of the pandemic, but that collegiality deteriorated over the course of the summer and into the fall as the WE controversy dominated headlines and committee investigations. Though the Liberals have survived all tests of confidence that have occurred up to this point, this could certainly change.
Politics has a way of being all-encompassing, so perhaps we should never be surprised when an elected official, especially a cabinet minister, decides that they’ve fought their last campaign. It is worth noting, however, that this government promised to do things differently when it comes to the work-life balance – both for politicians and for Canadians. Back in 2015, the Liberals’ election promises included commitments for flexible work hours and increased options for parental leave. In 2019, the government announced changes to the Canada Labour Code that are meant to improve the balance for federally regulated workers; measures included new personal leave, expanded bereavement access and improved access to existing leaves.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made it clear early in his tenure that he planned to manage his own commitments to work and family in a healthy way as best he could. He encouraged his ministers and all parliamentarians to do the same. The government considered ideas such as holding remote sittings and ending Friday sessions as ways to help Parliament Hill become friendlier to family life. (Neither option was enacted until the pandemic moved some proceedings online.) In 2016, when the Prime Minister was criticized for taking a day off during an official trip to Japan to celebrate his wedding anniversary, he explained that the right mix of work and life is “essential” to one’s ability to serve the country “with all one’s very best.”
For many ministers, as well as many Canadians, the goal of a healthy balance between home and office, and the peace of mind that would come with it, has proven elusive. Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, for example, has spoken of the pressures of being both a parent and a minister. At a panel discussion in Winnipeg in 2016, Freeland admitted, “I worry about my kids and also my husband. And I worry at work – I worry my officials will think, ‘Oh God, we’re the department that has the mom as a minister.’”
The struggle to calibrate a healthy work-life balance is a common one and is no way confined to the political class. Further, the COVID-19 pandemic has both compounded pre-existing challenges and created new ones. For front-line health care workers and others in essential services, any such balance is out the window. Parents working from home in jurisdictions with school closures are doing double-duty all day long. On the flip side, the economic crisis has meant drastic declines in both rates of employment and hours worked. Some Canadians are more slammed than ever while others desperately need work.
Cabinet ministers are holding a retreat before the return of Parliament on Jan. 25. In some ways, knowing that they struggle like the rest of us is a comfort, as they are able to bring that perspective to policy discussions. While the first order of business is facilitating the rollout of the vaccine, they will also talk about the economic recovery plan. Job-creation strategies are a key part of this. These conversations need to consider the realities of work-life pressures and develop strategies for getting this right for Canadians of all incomes. A Canada-wide child-care program, for example, would be an essential step forward. Otherwise, we will miss an important opportunity for meaningful and inclusive economic reform.
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