With his cabinet shuffle, Trudeau floods the zone

Andrew MacDougall: In a big shuffle that featured some curious moves, at least one thing was clear: the PM’s focus on keeping open his path to victory
Members of the federal cabinet applaud as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a news conference in Ottawa, on Oct. 26, 2021 (Justin Tang/CP)
Members of the federal cabinet applaud as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a reporter’s question that he will lead his party in the next election, at a news conference after the federal cabinet was sworn in, in Ottawa, on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Andrew MacDougall is a director at Trafalgar Strategy, and a former Head of Communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper

On appearances, you wouldn’t expect Justin Trudeau to be a keen student of Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former svengali. And yet, here we are, with Trudeau taking a page out of the Bannon playbook and “flooding the zone with s–t”—ie. drowning the press in news lines so they don’t know where to focus—during yesterday’s cabinet swearing in.

You want changes? Well, here’s 31 changes, bucko, and more than enough storylines to fuel Season Three of Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister. This Parliament’s title: ‘Suck it, Alberta’.

Or is that ‘Up With Quebec’? Or ‘No Country For Old Men’? Or ‘Holy Crap, It Turns Out You Can Get Sacked From a Trudeau Cabinet’. With respect to the latter, step forward Bardish Chagger, whose cardinal sin was apparently not falling precisely enough on the sword of WE Charity.

Meanwhile, over in the dark corner of the cabinet room where Trudeau stacks his dead wood, Harjit Sajjan, Patty Hajdu and Carolyn Bennett were busy laughing at the sheer stupidity of keeping their ministerial top-ups and related perks. It turns out you can preside over an awful lot in Trudeau’s Canada—serial sexual misconduct in your organization, a clumsy and late response to a global pandemic, and offering up vindictive pension commentary for fallen colleagues whilst failing to move the dial in your actual brief—and still keep your car and driver.

But enough about yesterday’s ‘winners’. We should spare a thought for the losers, i.e. Marc Garneau and Jim Carr, two straight shooters and competent performers who were fired from cabinet for the crime of…what, exactly? And if Garneau is, as is rumoured, being lined up for the ambassadorship to France, then surely Trudeau would have known he wanted to do that before the election which saw Garneau returned to the House of Commons in one of the country’s safest Liberal seats. Missing an open goal for a star candidate seems a fitting coda to the election that wasted everyone’s time.

Tellingly, Trudeau didn’t replace Manitoban Carr with another ‘special representative to the Prairies’, seeing as the prairies declined to send many Liberal representatives to Ottawa. When you couple that lack of a move with two moves Trudeau did make—Steven Guilbeault to Environment and Jonathan Wilkinson over to Natural Resources—you could forgive the parts of the country that votes reliably Conservative for thinking Trudeau is perhaps not on their side. After all, Wilkinson seems to disdain the very resources Canada relies on for its prosperity, while Guilbeault is known to fancy wearing an orange jumpsuit when speaking about the oil sands. But hey, at least Edmontonian Randy Boissonault has his hands on the tourism wheel.

Which isn’t to say there weren’t some genuine winners in yesterday’s shuffle. Anita Anand has parlayed her strong showing on vaccine procurement into National Defence, and Mélanie Joly has taken the biggest rocket ride of them all, moving from the Ministry of No Real Consequence or Import into Global Affairs. That’s right, world. In the last Parliament, our new chief diplomat couldn’t be trusted with any heavy machinery, but in this Parliament she is just the person to get our rusty relationship with the United States back on track. Nor is it likely that Joly is the right person to devise a strategy to neuter China. Oh right, we’re China’s friends. Maybe it does make sense, after all. Whatever the case, Joly informs us she will be moving forward with ‘humility’ and ‘audacity’. So take that out of Joly’s pipe and smoke it.

Look, it could be that Joly possesses previously untapped depths. But given she’s Trudeau’s fifth foreign minister in just six years, it could just be that the Prime Minister doesn’t give much of a care about Canada’s role in the world. Which is a strange place to be when your central proposition is the ‘world needs more Canada’ and that ‘Canada is back’. But there you go.

Of course, all politics is local. Or at least domestic. Nobody gets elected on their foreign policy or foreign policy successes. They get elected by keeping things ticking over on the home front. For Trudeau, this means keeping his advantage in urban Canada and keeping enough of Quebec onside to cut off an easy route back to government for the Conservative Party of Canada. It might not be great for national unity, but Trudeau has clearly decided the rantier bits of rural Canada can do one thing, while he caters to the urban professional class.

Seen through this prism, perhaps the new Cabinet isn’t so bad after all.