Public Services and Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough is no stranger to challenges.
Visually impaired since birth, the 46-year-old Ms. Qualtrough is a medal-winning Paralympian swimmer and successful human rights lawyer. She joined Justin Trudeau's first cabinet as a rookie MP in 2015.
She might as well be called the Minister of Grief. Ms. Qualtrough is saddled with two of the government's most thankless jobs – fixing the badly broken Phoenix federal pay system and saving the financially precarious post office from irrelevancy. Getting both done could take years and billions of dollars.
Ms. Qualtrough has already vowed to "do everything needed" to fix Phoenix.
Canada Post is the next job on her to-do list. Later this month, Ms. Qualtrough is expected to unveil the Liberal government's plans for overhauling Canada Post's broken business model.
But it's not at all clear the government is ready to make the tough choices needed to keep Canada Post "financially self-sustaining," as required by its mandate.
Days after winning the election in 2015, the Liberals put a moratorium on the main elements of the former Conservative government's post office solution – the phase-out of doorstep delivery to 5.1 million mainly urban homes and franchising hundreds of postal outlets.
Two years later, the government still hasn't found a better way to get Canada Post out of its existential challenge. Every year, the post office delivers fewer letters to a growing number of addresses, resulting in costs that are rising faster than revenue, and massive pension obligations it may not be able to deliver on in the future. The parcel business is growing fast because of online shopping, but not fast enough.
The government was supposed to unveil its plan by last spring. Tulip season gave way to summer, then fall. Now it's nearly winter, and it's not clear the Liberals are any nearer to confronting the post office's big challenges.
Last year, a Liberal-appointed independent task force laid out a menu of seven options that would have saved Canada Post roughly $600-million a year. But it, too, reached the same conclusion. The best way would have to include franchising postal outlets and ending home delivery.
But the government apparently didn't like those options. Postal reform has been on the slow track ever since.
The government handed the task force's recommendations to a Commons committee, which embraced a very different vision in a report released last December. The committee recommended that the moratorium on ending home delivery and franchising should be made permanent. It also urged the government to fold Canada Post's $23-billion defined benefit pension plan into the Public Service Pension Plan. The committee also suggested that Canada Post could turn postal stations into hubs to deliver government services, ignoring the fact that Service Canada already does that.
The beauty for the government of shifting the pension to the public service plan is that it would relieve Canada Post of the troublesome legal obligation that it divert scarce cash to pay down the plan's crushing solvency deficit ($5.3-billion, as of Sept. 30).
The government has been giving the post office temporary relief from solvency payments of more than $1-billion a year. The government has since changed pension rules, easing the burden of solvency payments for federally regulated plans. Canada Post insists it doesn't expect to have to make special payments in 2018, but it will eventually.
The harsh reality for the post office is that with a shrinking work force, growing army of retirees and marginal profits, it can't easily meet those obligations. Eventually it will need to make major cuts to the core postal service.
Canada Post is barely profitable now. It could be losing as much as $700-million a year by 2026, according to an analysis by Ernst & Young for last year's task-force report.
Transferring the post office's pension obligations to the government plan is like a game of hide-and-seek. It would conceal them from public view, without fixing the underlying problem.
Taxpayers would still be on the hook for Canada Post's army of retirees, long after the post office delivers its last letter to Santa.