Eyes on new defence minister in Trudeau cabinet shuffle

Justin Trudeau’s third-term cabinet is awash with demotions, lateral moves and some significant gambles.

There are no clues in Trudeau’s significant shuffle Tuesday of ministers of any imminent departure, succession plan or election. Nor necessarily should there be. This is a reset, an attempt at fewer square pegs in round holes, a bit of a clean-and-continue campaign, and some clarity and consistency on policy priorities. The economy, by the way, is a problem for another day. No substantial economic portfolio got a new boss.

For British Columbia, it is not redeeming news. The sequence of losing Jody Wilson-Raybould in justice in 2019 and now Harjit Sajjan in defence in 2021 means the province doesn’t have a minister in the cabinet’s elite echelon. The closest now is Jonathan Wilkinson in natural resources, no small portfolio but not any kind of clear heavy-hitter role.

For Sajjan, the shift to international development and the Pacific economic development files was the lightest possible spanking for his perceived mishandling of incessant sexual misconduct scandals in the Canadian Armed Forces’ senior ranks. Sajjan had the unenviable task as a military veteran of taking on the senior officers who once were his bosses, and it didn’t appear his political boss in Trudeau made it a priority until much too recently.

In Anita Anand, defence inherits the cabinet’s most ascendant minister, a gifted lawyer and finance scholar praised for her pandemic work. She is today’s person to watch.

The military establishment has a history of devouring its ministers, but Trudeau appears to be placing his faith in Anand to tackle the scandals at the top and convert her governance expertise into an operational culture shift where the minister and not the officers are in charge. It also is a big stepping-stone opportunity. She is the first female minister in nearly 30 years to hold the role which, it should be noted, propelled Kim Campbell to her party’s leadership and, briefly, to prime minister.

Anand’s appointment is far, far less of a gamble than the choice few could foresee of Melanie Joly as foreign affairs minister, traditionally accorded a senior leader of the government. Little in her cabinet history suggested this was a logical step.

As lateral moves go, Steven Guilbault’s is the smartest fit of all. The founder of the Équiterre environmental organization and a former director of Greenpeace in Quebec was ill-suited in heritage. His government’s Bill C-10 properly died on the order paper, in part because he couldn’t champion it credibly. He had to await Catherine McKenna’s retirement to be rescued and placed where it makes most sense for him, most likely to the collective relief of the ministerial cohort he is leaving and joining. It ought not to slow the climate change initiatives.

It was also wise to ditch the vague digital initiative portfolio for Vancouver’s Joyce Murray and place her in a tangible job as the fisheries minister, a role that is more placid than its old task as the minister of angry fishers.

As demotions go, Patty Hajdu’s move into Indigenous services from health is, like Sajjan’s, not a profoundly serious rebuke; if anything, it’s an opportunity to tackle an important job. What we will need to find out in the next while is why Marc Garneau was dropped from foreign affairs to the backbench. Usually in such circumstance of perceived competence there is a personal backstory.

A footnote: two former colleagues at CTV News, Seamus O’Regan and Marci Ien, now have cabinet roles, the former shifting to labour from natural resources and the latter joining cabinet in the women, gender equality and youth role. Someone on Twitter promptly noted their former show, CanadaAM, now has more cabinet representatives than does Alberta. Combined with former Reuters executive Chrystia Freeland, the deputy prime minister and finance minister, in journalism parlance these three appointments are considered a trend. It is only a matter of time before the country is taken over.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.