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Politics Modest cabinet shuffle signals Liberals confident they’ve done what they set out to do

Justin Trudeau has a good reason to keep his cabinet largely intact as the government prepares for the 2019 general election.

He and his advisers believe that they have accomplished most of what they set out to do in this first mandate. Much of that mandate – from the assisted-dying legislation to nailing down the European trade agreement to legalizing cannabis – was challenging. The Prime Minister’s cabinet has performed well.

There are challenges ahead: saving the North American free-trade agreement; building the Trans Mountain pipeline; forcing Ontario and several other recalcitrant provinces to accept a federal carbon tax.

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But Mr. Trudeau’s team has gotten him this far, and the Prime Minister is counting on them to take it to the finish line.

Related: Trudeau shuffles cabinet with eye on trade and provincial relations - and next year’s election

Chrystia Freeland, the Minister for Trump, obviously couldn’t be moved from Foreign Affairs. With NAFTA still in limbo, this is no time to bring someone new into the talks. But the presidency of Donald Trump has taught Western nations that they can’t rely on America as they once did, for security or trade. So Jim Carr, who helped navigate the acquisition of the Trans Mountain pipeline as Natural Resources Minister, moves to International Trade, as the government seeks to diversify its trading relationships.

Not that long ago, vultures were circling over the Finance Department, as pundits declared that Mr. Trudeau might remove Bill Morneau as minister. But accusations of conflict of interest proved baseless, and the government largely retreated on highly unpopular plans to change how small businesses are taxed. The economy is strong, Mr. Morneau successfully negotiated the acquisition of the Trans Mountain pipeline and changing the finance minister would signal a shift in direction in fiscal policy. So Mr. Morneau stays.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould had two hugely important files: crafting assisted-dying legislation and legalizing the sale of cannabis. Both tasks are largely completed. The minister has performed well and remains in place.

Mr. Trudeau also kept Environment Minister Catherine McKenna in place, to help fight one of the biggest battles of the coming year.

The Environment Minister succeeded in getting almost all provinces to agree to some form of a national carbon tax. But elements within the Liberal Party are unhappy with the government’s decision to purchase and complete the Trans Mountain pipeline. Some members of the party’s youth council sent Mr. Trudeau a letter of protest. And one of Doug Ford’s first acts as Ontario’s new Progressive Conservative Premier was to scrap the existing cap-and-trade carbon reduction program. There’s a battle coming. Ms. McKenna will help fight it, in tandem with Dominic LeBlanc, the new Intergovernmental Affairs Minister. He is a good friend to Mr. Trudeau and a veteran pol who knows his way around a backroom better than most.

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There is trouble at the border, with tens of thousands of asylum seekers now coming into Canada illegally each year. Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen is a bit of rookie to be handling such a complex and controversial file. But moving him would signal the government was worried that things are getting out of control. He stays, reinforced by former Toronto police chief Bill Blair, who becomes Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction. Mr. LeBlanc will be lending a hand there, as well, as provinces demand more federal funding to accommodate these unexpected new arrivals.

A year ago, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan got himself in trouble for falsely claiming that he was the “architect” of a key battle between Canadian and Taliban forces in Afghanistan. But he will continue to preside over a modest buildup in materiel that will satisfy neither hawks nor doves, at home or abroad.

The only major demotion is Mélanie Joly, the former Heritage Minister, who tripped up by exempting Netflix from taxation in exchange for some ill-defined Canadian production fund, which played especially badly in Quebec. She has been demoted to tourism, replaced by Pablo Rodriguez, the former government whip.

There are good reasons to object, from both the left and the right, to this Liberal government’s agenda. Running deficits in times of growth. Nationalizing oil infrastructure. So little progress on Indigenous issues. So little progress on military procurement.

That’s what elections are for. But this Liberal government is confident it has largely done what it set out to do. Mr. Trudeau and his cabinet will stay the course.

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