National Column: Making cannon fodder of rookie ministers

by Chantal Hebert

Almost two years into her mandate, Heritage Minister Melanie Joly has clocked more time on her feet in the House of Commons defending the indefensible appointment of a close member of the Liberal family to the office of commissioner of official languages than advancing transformative policies.

For the past three weeks the heritage minister has been the public face of a fiasco of her government’s own making. On Wednesday former Ontario cabinet minister Madeleine Meilleur withdrew her name from contention for languages watchdog, probably just in time to avoid having her appointment quashed in the Senate.

Once Joly has wiped the egg off her face she will have to go back to the drawing board, under intense media and opposition scrutiny and under a cloud of doubts as to her judgment.

Joly was appointed to cabinet before she had served a day in the Commons. Like many of her colleagues she was a political rookie. It would be tempting to put the episode down to ministerial inexperience and/or incompetence.

Except that if she is walking wounded today, it is, in no small part, the result of the nonchalance of the prime minister.

For when it comes to parliamentary watchdogs the buck has always stopped with prime ministers. If you don’t remember what Stephen Harper’s heritage minister had to say about the appointment of journalist Graham Fraser as official languages commissioner in 2006 it is because no one was interested in Bev Oda’s opinion.

Five of Trudeau’s predecessors managed to come up with nominees whose independence the opposition had no cause to question. By appointing a just-retired Ontario Liberal to a job that, by definition, calls for independence from the government the prime minister was breaking with tradition.

Knowing that, Trudeau could have sounded out his opposition vis-‡-vis to get a sense of the lay of the land. He did not. He could have anticipated that – absent consent from the other parties – Senate approval for a non-consensual candidate would not be a done deal. He is, after all, the prime minister who gave the upper house its independence.

If it’s any consolation to minister Joly she has companions in misery.

Earlier this year Bardish Chagger was appointed House leader. She is the first woman to occupy this strategic government position. She also brings to the role less hands-on experience in the Commons than any of her predecessors.

To be able to read the mood of the House is an essential skill for one in Chagger’s position. It is also a skill usually acquired over time.

As parliamentary neophyte, Chagger would have had her hands full just keeping the government’s legislative agenda on track.

Yet, shortly after her appointment she was tasked with implementing a controversial set of parliamentary reforms. Included in the government’s unilateral wish list were measures that would have curtailed some of the few procedural tools at the disposal of an opposition minority.

Chagger might as well have set out for a stroll across a minefield. She pressed on with the plan until a predictable procedural war threatened to bring the House to a grinding halt. At that point she beat back in retreat – at cost to her credibility.

As it happens, the prime minister poisoned the well of his rookie House leader. When Trudeau summarily pulled the plug on his promise to change the voting system, he squandered a serious amount of opposition goodwill.

In the process, he also damaged not one but two other rookie ministers. Trudeau sent Maryam Monsef, his first democratic institutions minister, on a trip to nowhere that had her and the opposition parties running around in circles for months.

Then he shuffled Monsef out of the portfolio and dispatched successor Karina Gould to announce – as one of her first acts as a minister – that the promise of a new voting system was off the table.

That left Gould with a minimalist electoral reform agenda to implement. Despite the lighter load, she has yet to find her way to appoint a permanent chief electoral officer. That, too, is a decision that must bear the imprimatur of the prime minister.

Joly, Chagger, Monsef and Gould are part of the younger female tier of Trudeau’s cabinet and of a new promising wave of Canadian politicians. Had they served under a prime minister less committed to gender parity, they might have been left to learn the ropes on the backbenches of the government. In hindsight, that might have been a preferable alternative to serving as cannon fodder on missions programmed to fail.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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