IF POLITICS is a contact sport, as U.S. congressman Steve Chabot has said, then the cabinet is like a hockey team. Not like back in the day, mind you, when teams stayed together for long periods, to gel and excel. Fans knew the players by their association with the team, not as free agents open to the highest bidder. Today, cabinet members, like hockey players, move to different positions so often it’s hard to remember who does what.
When Justin Trudeau won the federal election of 2015 he signalled his intentions with Canada’s first gender-balanced cabinet and solemn promises around veterans and Indigenous affairs. So how have these constituencies fared?
Little more than a year after the election he shuffled six positions in advance of Donald Trump’s ascendency to the U.S. presidency. Chief among them was Chrystia Freeland’s promotion from international trade to foreign affairs where she took on Trump in messy trade talks. Like a good coach, Trudeau has an eye for talent.
Sometimes, though, coaches and prime ministers get it wrong. Kent Hehr was Trudeau’s first veterans affairs minister and while he got nine local veterans offices re-opened, including Thunder Bay’s, his overall performance was sub-par and he was moved down to sport. Later, he was forced out of cabinet by allegations of sexual misconduct.
The 2017 shuffle also saw former TV host Seamus O’Regan named to cabinet as the veterans affairs minister, a department that has seen a new minister for each of the past 10 years or so. An earlier stint in alcohol rehab did not dim Trudeau’s admiration for O’Regan who had bigger things in store.
Coaches often seek to pair certain players whose performances together are seen as more beneficial to the team. Similarly, in that same 2017 shuffle, Trudeau gave responsibility for Indigenous affairs to two ministers, Carolyn Bennett and Jane Philpott.
This was an extension of Trudeau’s original key promise to put the Indigenous file front and centre, aiming to accelerate self-determination, reconciliation and service delivery to Canada’s Aboriginal, Inuit and Metis citizens.
He’d also promised to end boil-water advisories on all First Nations by 2021. An internal government memo uncovered this week shows that on-reserve water system maintenance is more lacking than government programs. So more money from Ottawa won’t fix things.
Then, in July of 2018, Trudeau again shuffled the deck, adding five new faces and moving six other ministers around to shore up the government’s strength on trade diversification, border security and interprovincial affairs — all expected to be hot topics in the 2019 general election.
This year’s election also figured in Trudeau’s fourth cabinet re-shuffle this week. Hello Bernadette Jordan, minister in the new rural economic development post, responsible for overseeing a new rural jobs strategy, implementing high-speed internet to more rural areas, and handling the infrastructure needs of these communities.
But this latest shuffle was mostly notable for the public shaming of Judy Wilson-Raybould who was demoted to that place where the seat barely gets warm, veterans affairs, from justice where she performed capably, legalizing cannabis, establishing a template for physician-assisted dying, and advancing legislation to reform the criminal justice system.
In one fell swoop, Trudeau humiliated (and it showed, though both denied demotion) an accomplished Indigenous woman, halved his female tag-team at Indigenous affairs by putting Philpott at treasury board, vacated by Scott Brison, and pulled O’Regan from veterans affairs to fill Philpott’s cabinet seat alongside Bennett, sharing a file on which the Liberals cannot afford to fail. Wouldn’t Wilson-Raybould have been the better choice?
At veterans affairs O’Regan was underwhelming. Eyes rolled when O’Regan said he could understand the transition to civilian life from the military based on his jump from television to politics. Trudeau has to hope that Wilson-Raybould’s enthusiasm hasn’t dimmed with her demotion. Canada’s veterans deserve a minister who can make good on the Liberals’ promises to them, including improved services and pensions.
What of Brison, whose odd departure in an election year prompted this latest shuffle? Brison’s on-and-off career began with election as a Conservative in Nova Scotia in 1997. He agreed to resign so that then PC leader Joe Clark could have a Commons seat. Brison went to work on the PC election campaign. Come the 2000 election, Clark ran in Calgary and Brison contested and won back his old seat.
The emergence of the Canadian Alliance and PC agreement to merge to form the Conservative Party of Canada caused Brison to cross the floor to the Liberals. After the 2004 election he became Canada’s first openly-gay cabinet minister, a young man with a bright political future and a solid past as leadership candidate for both parties.
But then, earlier this month, he suddenly resigned saying he wants to spend more time with his family. Journalist Christie Blatchford found there may be more to it.
Brison is on the list of witnesses in the trial of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, the Canadian military’s second-in-command, who is accused of leaking cabinet secrets about awarding a contract for supply ships.
Norman’s lawyers say that Brison was the driving force behind a government decision to delay awarding the contract to Quebec’s Davie shipyard, based on a letter of complaint from rival Irving Shipbuilding in Brison’s Nova Scotia home province. The contract had been sole-sourced to Davie by the former Conservative government and Norman thought Davie was best suited to build the vessels.
Blatchford reports in the National Post this month that Norman’s lawyers say it was “Brison’s statements to the RCMP — that the leaks about the contract delay to a Davie executive and a journalist, allegedly by Norman, were so grave they hindered his and the government’s ability to do their due diligence on the Davie contact — that acted as the foundation for the Norman prosecution.”
Norman and Brison have both said they were just doing their jobs in the public interest. A motion hearing in Norman’s trial resumes Jan. 29 and the trial itself is scheduled for August, two months before the next election. No doubt Trudeau is relieved that Brison is gone from the Liberal cabinet, replaced by a trusted lieutenant in Philpott.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.
(Originally published Jan. 19, 2019)