Lori Turnbull is the director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University and the deputy editor of Canadian Government Executive magazine.
On Wednesday, Canadians learned the names and portfolios of the members of the new federal cabinet. With some exceptions, such as the introduction of Marco Mendicino as Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and the elimination of Kirsty Duncan and Ginette Petitpas Taylor, it is not really a new cabinet. Instead, this is a continuation of the group that has surrounded Prime Minister Justin Trudeau since the beginning. The big story from the swearing-in ceremony is the reinstatement of the role of the deputy prime minister.
In being appointed to this position, Chrystia Freeland joins the ranks of a most exclusive and influential cadre of ministers in relatively recent Canadian history whose contributions have merited very special recognition. The position of deputy prime minister was created originally by Mr. Trudeau’s father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, back in 1977, largely to acknowledge the distinguished presence of Allan MacEachen, a most formidable parliamentarian, minister, politico and, eventually, senator from Cape Breton Island.
Other deputy prime ministers in Canada’s history include Herb Gray, John Manley, Sheila Copps, Don Mazankowski, Erik Nielsen, Jean Charest, Anne McLellan and Jean Chrétien; these are among the heaviest hitters of Canadian parliamentary politics. The position of deputy prime minister does not have to be filled. A prime minister appoints a deputy only when circumstances warrant.
In coupling the roles of deputy prime minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, and placing them in the hands of Ms. Freeland, Mr. Trudeau is doing some noteworthy things. First, he is acknowledging the need to appoint a deputy prime minister in the first place. From a merely practical perspective, the Prime Minister has a frighteningly busy schedule, to put it mildly. The appointment of Ms. Freeland as deputy prime minister signals that he might be willing to off-load some of his responsibilities to her.
Second, with the appointment of Ms. Freeland as Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Mr. Trudeau concedes that she is better positioned to carry this file than he is. It is not unusual in Canada for prime ministers and premiers to be their own intergovernmental affairs ministers but, in these tense political times and in light of the regionally divided results of the October election, the Prime Minister realizes that he needs a highly capable minister to devote her full-time attention to the issue of national unity.
The Liberals did not elect any members of Parliament in Alberta or Saskatchewan. The absence of government MPs from these provinces elevates the roles of their premiers as advocates and fuels the competitive dynamic between these conservative premiers and the Liberal federal government. Ms. Freeland represents a Toronto riding but is from Alberta, so she’s got legitimate street cred in that province that the Prime Minister will never have. As a minister, she can get pulled into the trenches with Premiers Jason Kenney and Scott Moe (and others), allowing the Prime Minister to keep his powder dry.
When it comes to national unity and regional tensions, the West is not the only force to be reckoned with. The size of the Bloc Québécois caucus makes for a very strong voice for Quebec in the House of Commons. Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet has been acting as though he’s the premier of Quebec. He’s not, of course, but he’s got tremendous legitimacy as a voice for the province within the House. The appointment of a significant number of Quebec ministers speaks to the Liberal government’s awareness of the power of the Bloc.
Third, with Ms. Freeland’s new appointment, Mr. Trudeau gives us the clearest possible indication of his trust in her. She is his right hand, the chosen one. He needs her to succeed in her efforts to keep the country together. His own political life depends on it.
But herein lies a very interesting political narrative: Mr. Trudeau will not lead the Liberal Party forever; Ms. Freeland is an obvious choice to replace him. There are examples in Canadian history of leaders saddling potential challengers with crushing, hopeless responsibilities that will surely tank their leadership aspirations. It might seem that this is what Mr. Trudeau is doing – dumping his worst problems on his strongest leadership opponent, with the hope that she will be overwhelmed by them.
But, again, he needs her to succeed. If she does, her CV truly is beyond reproach. She will be the minister who negotiated a new free-trade agreement with U.S. President Donald Trump and national unity with Premier Jason Kenney. And who could top that?
Her success will make her either an alarmingly competent leadership contender for Mr. Trudeau – or the best prime minister Canada never had.
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