Lori Turnbull is the Director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University and deputy editor of Canadian Government Executive magazine.
In the wake of Jody Wilson-Raybould’s damning testimony, Liberal damage control efforts are in full swing. The former minister’s testimony delivered a devastating blow to the Liberal brand. With less than eight months to go before the next scheduled federal election, there is not much time to build it back up.
The brand has consisted of several related themes, including feminist government, reconciliation, openness and accountability, cabinet government and growing the middle class. Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s allegations that she was pressed by a group of individuals – including the Prime Minister himself – to “find a solution” for SNC-Lavalin runs counter to each and every one of these themes. Instead of open and inclusive discussions geared toward fairness and prosperity for everyone, Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s words paint a picture of sustained workplace bullying directed at an Indigenous woman, with the aim of protecting Montreal-based politicians and corporate elites.
Friday’s cabinet shuffle is, potentially, a first step in the campaign to build the brand back up. Although a small shuffle involving only a handful of ministers, the primary takeaway message is the empowerment of women. Marie-Claude Bibeau becomes Canada’s first female minister of agriculture at the federal level. Maryam Monsef, currently the minister for the status of women, will also assume responsibility for Ms. Bibeau’s former portfolio, international development. The coupling of these two files under Ms. Monsef’s direction is meant to signal the government’s commitment to its feminist approach to international assistance.
Obviously, the shuffle isn’t just about brand-building. Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s resignation left a vacancy in Veterans Affairs that needed to be filled. The appointment of Lawrence MacAulay, a Chrétien-era MP from Atlantic Canada, is meant to bring stability to a ministry that has gone through a lot of change. The Liberals might also be thinking of how nice it was to sweep Atlantic Canada in 2015; in vulnerable times, even 32 seats can make a big difference.
In light of Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s testimony, one has to wonder whether, in the grand scheme of things, cabinet composition really matters. In 2015, Prime Minister Trudeau told us it did. He appointed Canada’s first gender-equal cabinet, which was inclusive not only of experienced MPs such as Mr. MacAulay, Ralph Goodale and John McCallum, but also of first time MPs such as Ms. Wilson-Raybould, Ms. Monsef, and Ms. Bibeau. The Prime Minister told us it was time for a fresh and inclusive approach to cabinet government, which empowered ministers individually and collectively, “because it’s 2015.”
In Open and Accountable Government, which Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick referred to as “the playbook” in his testimony before the justice committee, the Prime Minister positions cabinet as playing a central role in our Westminster system. It is where ministers “reach a consensus and decide on issues.” However, according to the testimony provided by Ms. Wilson-Raybould, ministers are challenged by political staff in the exercise of their duties, even those duties that are supposed to be above the political fray. The former minister speaks of overzealous, unrestrained political staff rather than an empowered cabinet. So why should we care about a shuffle?
Former prime minister Stephen Harper was often accused of being a micromanaging control freak who used his trusted advisers in the PMO to keep ministers in line. People such as Jenni Byrne and Nigel Wright became household names during Mr. Harper’s tenure, and there were many stories of Conservative ministers and MPs who either suffered a dressing-down or were given strict instructions (and talking points) on how to manage a file from the PMO. The Trudeau Liberals campaigned on doing things differently. And that’s where the brand is really in trouble. Mr. Harper never said he’d be “sunny.”
Now that the shine is off, Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals have a choice to make in how they structure this year’s campaign messaging. Do they try to rebuild the old brand around openness, inclusion and governing differently in a postpartisan era, or do they abandon that to more fully embrace the ugly realities of governance? The latter would involve getting into the trenches with opposition parties on policy specifics, and maybe running some negative ads to match the many that will target them. It would involve more mudslinging than virtue-signalling, but it might be the only way to stay alive.
For its part, the opposition has work to do. Both Andrew Scheer and Jagmeet Singh must build relationships with Canadians and give them something to vote for. Watching the Liberals self-destruct is not enough. The 2019 election will be the nastiest, most negative campaign in years. And to survive it, the Liberals might need a new brand.