When Justin Trudeau’s first cabinet was sworn in on an unusually sunny day back in November, 2015, Catherine McKenna was a noteworthy figure in a lineup heavy with symbolism.
It was a cabinet full of shiny pennies – a former CEO, a doctor who tended the sick in Africa, the first Indigenous justice minister – and Ms. McKenna was one of the shiniest.
Mr. Trudeau had run with the idea that he led a team bringing change. Ms. McKenna was the first environment minister whose title included climate change. Sharp, new to elected politics, and out to change things.
Now, in 2021, half of the ministers in Mr. Trudeau’s first cabinet are gone, or going. Fifteen out of 30, not counting the PM. Ms. McKenna is the latest to say she won’t run again.
The pandemic changed a lot of priorities, as Ms. McKenna noted Monday in her announcement to leave elected life, and politics can be exhausting. Mr. Trudeau’s government has, in one way or another, chewed up a lot of its shiny pennies.
It’s not about the rate of turnover. Former PM Stephen Harper lost as many ministers, though not so many front-bench leaders. But a lot of Mr. Trudeau’s symbolic stars have been ground out of the game in the past six years. As has the symbolism of a cabinet team driving an agenda.
Ms. McKenna played a big role in the first rush of Mr. Trudeau’s government, travelling to the negotiations for the Paris Agreement on climate change and pushing for a robust deal, and symbolizing a break with the climate-skeptic approach of Mr. Harper’s years.
She was a key figure in adopting a more robust climate policy at home. No cabinet minister nowadays really runs a major government priority, but Ms. McKenna carried the water. She stickhandled the carbon-pricing mechanism. She took the questions, took on opponents, sweated through Supreme Court challenges, sparred with premiers, and took abuse online and once on the walls of her constituency office in spray paint.
After that, Mr. Trudeau obviously deemed that she had suffered wear and tear and was no longer a political asset: After the 2019 election, he moved her into the infrastructure and cities portfolio, where she had budgets but less profile. Her symbolic role, her place in cabinet as a force for political change, was more or less over.
Not just her. Remember the rush to land Syrian refugees in 2015? It was led by then-immigration minister John McCallum and a cabinet task force headed by a rookie health minister who had spent nine years tending the sick in Niger, Jane Philpott.
Mr. McCallum and another veteran, Stéphane Dion, were among the first pushed out, to embassies. Ms. Philpott was fired for siding with the first Indigenous justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, who was squeezed after Mr. Trudeau pressed her about the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. The former CEO, Bill Morneau, was relieved as finance minister either because he was in a conflict over the WE Charity affair or he conflicted with Mr. Trudeau over postpandemic fiscal vision – take your pick.
There were, as always, some who lost their jobs, such as Hunter Tootoo and MaryAnn Mihychuk, or lost an election, such as Ralph Goodale and Amarjeet Sohi, or decided to leave, like Scott Brison in 2019, Navdeep Bains in January, and now Ms. McKenna.
Governments go through ministers. But now it’s fair to say Mr. Trudeau is no longer working with the cabinet class of 2015.
Their group portrait, half women, seemed to be a picture of what the then-new Liberal government promised to stand for – diversity, reconciliation, climate action, expansionist fiscal policy. Half are still women in 2021, but perhaps the relevant power balance is that, in addition to Mr. Trudeau, there is now Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland. And what does the 2021 group portrait say about the government’s direction? Not much.
After Ms. McKenna, the Liberals still have a climate policy, and more stringent carbon pricing. There will be recruits. There is already speculation that Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of Canada and Bank of England, will run in Ms. McKenna’s riding.
But Mr. Carney can be warned. The evidence suggests that this Liberal government eats through its stars pretty quickly. And the idea that Mr. Trudeau will put together a cabinet team that will shape the government’s direction is out of date.
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