It was nice that when one of Justin Trudeau’s friends inexplicably fell upward into a more high-profile cabinet post, there were also promotions for some of the Liberals’ brighter lights.
Seamus O’Regan’s 17 months as Veterans Affairs minister was no tour de force, so you’d expect there would be a question mark on his judgment rather than a gold star. But Mr. Trudeau moved him to Indigenous Services, a bigger hot seat that’s likely to be very visible in an election year.
The Prime Minister called his friend a “leader in cabinet,” but if so, it was leadership that wasn’t obvious to the outside world, with Mr. O’Regan sometimes displaying a loose command of his portfolio and suspect political judgment.
It’s a good thing for Mr. Trudeau, then, that he was able to promote Jane Philpott, the cabinet’s paragon of quiet competence, from Indigenous Services to a major economic portfolio, Treasury Board. And for good measure, he lifted sharp-minded David Lametti, a former McGill law professor, straight into the Justice portfolio.
Still, Monday’s cabinet shuffle stuck out as a peculiar game of political Chutes and Ladders that included some odd choices. There was the sudden demotion of Jody Wilson-Raybould, dropped from Justice to Veterans Affairs, the not-easily explained promotion for Mr. O’Regan and, with that, some strange gaps left in important places.
The immediate reason for the shuffle was the resignation of Treasury Board president Scott Brison, which meant Mr. Trudeau had to put a Nova Scotia MP into cabinet and shift a more experienced minister into the Treasury Board.
The filling of the Nova Scotia slot was the most obvious political move of the day – and not only because the job went to MP Bernadette Jordan, who represents a riding the Liberals rarely win, South Shore-St. Margarets. It’s also because she was handed a new portfolio, Rural Economic Development, mandated to deal with issues that matter to small communities, such as internet access – and to score points in a lot of swing ridings, notably in Atlantic Canada.
One big surprise was the precipitous fall of Ms. Wilson-Raybould. The appointment of an Indigenous woman as Justice minister had been seen as a milestone in 2015, but on Monday she dropped several pegs to Veterans Affairs, notable mostly for its pitfalls.
There have been rumours that Ms. Wilson-Raybould was rough on officials and staff and rubbed some of her colleagues the wrong way – MaryAnn Mihychuk was bumped from cabinet for similar reasons in 2017. But Ms. Wilson-Raybould was far from a political liability. She had spent three years in a high-profile portfolio without committing any embarrassing blunders. It seemed odd that Mr. Trudeau suddenly clipped his minister’s wings before an election.
That demotion probably made Ms. Philpott’s promotion all the more inevitable. Mr. Trudeau needed an experienced hand, but with Ms. Wilson-Raybould going down the ladder – and after the demotion of Mélanie Joly last July to the Tourism portfolio – it was good politics to move a woman into a senior economic portfolio.
But it meant pulling Ms. Philpott from Indigenous Services, where she was winning plaudits for making unexpected progress. She was put into the job because she was a hands-on minister, trusted to make headway on a perennial problem file. Her departure leaves a skills gap, and Mr. O’Regan isn’t the most probable minister to fill it.
The job was a new portfolio, created in 2017 when Indian Affairs was split in two, and Ms. Philpott was handed the task of improving services and bleak social outcomes for Indigenous communities – lifting boil-water advisories, reducing the number of children taken into care and so on.
Now it’s an election year, when the Liberals' big promise to revamp the way Ottawa deals with Indigenous Canadians will be judged, and Mr. Trudeau has moved his most credible figure on the file to a portfolio that is more concerned with internal government matters.
In the end, of course, a prime minister has to fill the slots. Mr. Brison’s departure required an election-year shuffle, and Mr. Trudeau decided to keep it to a few shifts rather than a major renovation of his government. Once you decide to keep most of the big names in place, there aren’t as many options for change. But in this peculiar shuffle, Mr. Trudeau filled some holes with square pegs.