When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Chrystia Freeland as the first woman to become Canada’s finance minister, he also advanced her prospects for becoming the first female leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
The appointment tells us something else. The centralization of power in the Prime Minister’s Office is now complete. Replacing Bill Morneau with Ms. Freeland as finance minister ensures that there is no longer any counterforce to Mr. Trudeau’s will. He and Ms. Freeland get to write the cheques together, with no one left to object.
Whether, as Mr. Trudeau’s possible successor, Ms. Freeland would assume the mantle of prime minister or of leader of the opposition depends on events, which in 2020 come thick and fast and hard.
No finance minister has ever been so deeply embedded within the office of the prime minister as Ms. Freeland. She was hand-picked by Mr. Trudeau’s team to run in a downtown Toronto by-election in 2013, and that team worked hard to secure her victory. She is one of them.
The team chose well. As trade minister, Ms. Freeland secured ratification of the free-trade agreement with the European Union. When Donald Trump became U.S. President and threatened to tear up the North American free-trade agreement, she skillfully negotiated a new accord in her role as foreign affairs minister that protected Canada’s most vital interests.
Mr. Trudeau’s imperious approach to federal-provincial relations revived the Bloc Québécois and fuelled separatist fires in Alberta. Mr. Trudeau sent Ms. Freeland in as intergovernmental affairs minister to ease strained relations with the country’s premiers. She succeeded to the point that Ontario Premier Doug Ford, once the sworn enemy of the Liberal government, said on Tuesday, “I absolutely love Chrystia Freeland. She’s amazing. I’ll have her back, I’ll help her any way we can.”
All of this would make her seem difficult to beat in any leadership contest. Nonetheless, her appointment isn’t all good news – for Ms. Freeland, for the government, or for the Liberal Party.
There was a time, long, long ago, when the prime minister was not the only locus of power within the federal government. The foreign-affairs minister had considerable sway over foreign affairs. The president of the Treasury Board was in charge of government operations. And no one, including the prime minister, committed to anything unless and until the finance minister of the day approved the spending.
The other departments have long since lost their power, and Mr. Morneau had less autonomy than any previous finance minister. Now Finance, too, is completely subordinate to the centre.
Mr. Trudeau clearly has big plans, promising “to embrace bold new solutions to the challenges we face and refuse to be held back by old ways of thinking,” as he put it at Tuesday’s press conference. Whatever those plans, Ms. Freeland will be all-in.
“The die has been cast,” Donald Savoie, one of this country’s leading authorities on public administration, said in an interview.
Ms. Freeland “knows that Morneau tried to put the brakes on without any success,” he said. “She knows what she’s getting into.”
Nonetheless, the government’s situation is precarious. The Liberals will have to survive a vote of confidence in September. Mr. Trudeau has been badly damaged by the WE Charity controversy. And it’s never a good thing for a government when a finance minister quits.
Also, proroguing Parliament for a month in the midst of multiple crises, as the government did on Tuesday, will not go down well.
A major ratings downgrade, a second wave of COVID-19, a deepening recession, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – nothing that happens this fall should come as a surprise.
And then there is Ms. Freeland’s political persona. In these frightening times, people expect plain talk. From Mr. Ford in Ontario to John Horgan in British Columbia, the premiers are delivering straight answers (well, mostly) to voters on what their governments are doing to protect peoples’ health and jobs.
But Mr. Trudeau and Ms. Freeland avoid that approach, preferring to glide smoothly over whatever question they are being asked, landing on the talking point of the day.
How will voters respond to the new Finance Minister’s infuriatingly calm refusal to engage?
One thing we can predict: Nothing will go as expected. In politics, nothing ever does. With all that said, we wish the minister, with whom I once worked at The Globe and Mail, every success.
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