Cabinet roster just the start of key appointments for Trudeau's minority Liberals
OTTAWA -- On Wednesday Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will unveil the cabinet roster he’ll take in to the new minority Parliament. Some are speculating it could have a larger number of ministers, but it’s just the first in a series of important appointment-related decisions the Liberals will make in the coming weeks.
Given the nature of minority parliaments, the focus on the House of Commons and the people selected to fill the slate of key House positions is likely to be made with additional strategic consideration -- both from a legislative and logistical perspective, but also taking into account caucus management.
“The prime minister needs every Liberal MP on board and happy. How do you make everybody happy? It’s a recipe for failure,” Liberal strategist and senior vice president at Proof Strategies Greg MacEachern told CTVNews.ca.
MacEachern said that in considering the cabinet roster, some thought should also be given to who will fill these other House roles. “It’s a huge task,” he said.
The first step in shaping the parliamentary team will come on Nov. 20 when Trudeau announces who the Government House Leader will be. That person’s job is in large part stickhandling the government’s agenda and legislation through the House.
While bilingualism has always been an asset, it’ll be important for the person in this job to be able to communicate well in both French and English given the Bloc Quebecois now has third-party status.
“I think it has to be somebody from Quebec because of the strength of the Bloc Quebecois,” said Conservative strategist Kate Harrison, on CTV’s Power Play.
It requires frequent conversations and negotiations with the opposition House leaders, with all looking to advance their parties’ key issues in a timely manner. This job includes setting the agenda for the week to come, and being the lead on any sort of House rule reforms. In the last government the mandate letter included the goal of making “Parliament relevant again.”
At the start of the last Parliament Dominic LeBlanc was named to the House leader position, but then in 2016 Bardish Chagger took on the role, making history as the first female and visible minority to hold that job.
In the last Parliament the Liberals faced criticism that they were slow to advance their legislative agenda, and at several points opposition tactics held up the government’s House business. Because minority governments typically last less than four years, there will likely be a desire to have as many bills pass as quickly as possible.
“This is a minority, and this is not a place where you bring in people with training wheels, they have to land, they have to hit the ground running. There isn't a whole lot of on-the-job training taking place here,” said Greg Weston, strategic communications consultant and principal at Earnscliffe, on CTV’s Power Play about the cabinet makeup.
Former Conservative House leader Peter Van Loan told CTVNews.ca that it’ll be important for whoever holds the role to have a degree of humility and be able to work collaboratively with the opposition.
“Even when you have an ideologically divided opposition, there are things that the opposition can and do unite on, particularly on procedural kinds of questions. And for that reason… I think it’s important for the House leader to be able to maintain some positive relationships, however that is done,” Van Loan said.
The role pays the same as other ministerial portfolios, an $85,500 top-up on the $178,900 salary for members of Parliament.
Naming a chief government whip
Though not a cabinet position on its own, there is still precedent for the chief government whip to have a seat at that table -- but that is not the approach Trudeau took in 2015.
This position will be essential to the stability of the Liberal minority, as they are in charge of making sure there are always enough MPs in their seats in the House, especially during votes. This person also handles other caucus attendance and committee-related logistics, but is generally considered a “counter”: ensuring the government has the numbers to maintain the confidence in the Commons.
In 2015 Trudeau named his first whip a few weeks after cabinet was appointed, but given that Parliament convenes on Dec. 5 it’s likely the person who will fill this role will be appointed sooner rather than later.
Van Loan recommended that the whip quickly look to set in motion an agreement on the timing of votes as one key way to try to keep people happy and ambitions in-check, especially those retuning MPs who have been in the habit of a majority government.
“It is critical to managing people’s personal schedules. Should the other parties agree to it? Not if they want to keep the Liberals on their toes and force the Liberals to keep their people in Ottawa all the time… but that’s something that certainly all the MPs would probably like -- a little bit of certainty in their life,” he said.
This position comes with a $31,900 salary top-up.
Appointing parliamentary secretaries
Parliamentary secretaries are MPs from the governing caucus, who act as liaisons between cabinet ministers and the House of Commons.
Unlike cabinet, these roles expire when a federal election is called, so there are no current sitting parliamentary secretaries. The naming of this second-tier will likely follow in the days after the shuffle once all positions are known.
The Liberals may have tied their own hands by changing the House rules in the last Parliament to make it so that parliamentary secretaries are not allowed to be voting members on House committees. Despite this, parliamentary secretaries often do sit in on meetings and report back to their minister on what’s being said.
Given the new dynamics on House committees—where the opposition parties have the majority and are in the driver’s seat in many respects—the Liberals will have to consider this when slotting in committee members.
These positions come with a $17,500 salary top-up.
Electing committee chairs
Each House of Commons committee elects its own chair at the first meeting.
In a minority where opposition parties hold most of the seats around each committee table -- with the breakdown being proportional to the number of MPs in each party -- these smaller groups focused on certain issues will become more important.
Committees are where bills get scrutinized, most amendments get moved, and various issues get studied and reported on. With opposition parties having the upper hand on the length of studies and topics, the chair could become a key adjudicator.
They are supposed to remain neutral, and do not move motions at committee nor do they vote in most circumstances. With the exception of a few committees that are designated to be chaired by an opposition MP, it will likely be Liberals at the helm.
“Some people aren't going to be in cabinet, some people aren’t going to be parliamentary secretaries, some people maybe don’t see a committee chairmanship as a reward in a minority government because it's going to be that much more difficult,” said MacEachern.
The position of committee chair comes with a $12,400 salary top-up.
Priority policy issues to push
The Liberals will also have to think about what issues they advance early on.
They’ve already committed to a middle-class tax cut, which they promised during the campaign, as their first official piece of government legislation. They took the same approach with their first bill in the last Parliament.
It’s also likely that early on the Liberals will look to re-table the new NAFTA ratification legislation. While it was introduced and passed through the initial debate stage in the last Parliament, the bill died on the order paper when the election was called and Parliament was dissolved.
That means it needs to be re-introduced and go through the entire legislative process again.
Physician-assisted dying is also set to be a topic the government has to tackle in its first few months. In September the Quebec Superior Court ruled that sections of the federal and Quebec laws on medically assisted dying were invalid, finding that they were unconstitutional because they were too restrictive.
The court gave both federal and provincial governments six months to review the ruling and revise their laws, giving the Liberals until March to advance legislation in response.
During the campaign Trudeau vowed that his government would look at broadening or evolving the legislation they passed in 2016 that put into force Canada's current physician-assisted dying law.