National Column: Rookie ministers account for much of Liberals’ grief

by Chantal Hebert

Some cabinet members, like Chrystia Freeland, own their portfolios, while others, such as Bill Morneau, are now liabilities.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau celebrates the second anniversary of his election victory this week with his finance minister in a self-imposed exile from the House of Commons that the opposition parties would gladly make permanent.

Three parliamentary sitting days have elapsed in the ethical storm that has engulfed Bill Morneau over his decision to keep control, albeit indirectly, of his shares in his family’s pension services company, and he has yet to show up in the House to face down his opposition critics.

They allege the minister breached, if not the law, at least the spirit of the conflict of interest rules that govern elected officials, a point the Conservatives and the New Democrats hammered over the course of Wednesday’s rowdy question period.

In an interview this week, Morneau said he had no plans to step down. But at mid-mandate, Trudeau’s star economic recruit has become a liability. That’s not just because of his handling of his financial affairs. He is a weak link in a crucial spot in the government’s chain of command.

As Trudeau’s clumsy efforts to play interference for his finance minister demonstrated this week, it is a situation that the prime minister cannot, on his own star-dusted merits, mitigate.

Had he served in someone else’s cabinet, Trudeau would not have been a natural choice for a senior economic portfolio. Morneau was meant to anchor the government’s economic team. Until further notice, the anchor is dragging down the Liberal ship.

The finance minister’s travails are also acting as a distraction from some of the more inspired moves of the government over the first half of its mandate.

Inexperienced ministers have accounted for much of the bad press the Liberals have endured over the past two years. But not all the Liberal rookies have been underwhelming in the execution of their ministerial duties.

The performance of Chrystia Freeland as the lead minister on the Canada-U.S. front falls in the opposite category. The minister of global affairs is holding her own on the toughest file the government is tasked to manage, one that is not even of the Liberals’ own choosing.

In a support role as international trade minister, first-time MP FranÁois-Philippe Champagne has also risen to the challenge. On the Quebec media hot seat over the Bombardier-Airbus arrangement this week, he succeeded in not making a delicate situation worse for his government. Perhaps Champagne could offer lessons to his heritage colleague, MÈlanie Joly, who left only debris in her wake when she did the media rounds to sell her Netflix deal this month.

Freeland and Champagne were assigned their current roles as part of a post-U.S. presidential election realignment of federal resources.

Success for Canada on that front may not be in the offing. Perhaps the best realistic outcome will amount to limiting the damage of the protectionist policies of Donald Trump’s administration. But there is a consensus that extends beyond the Liberal ranks that on this issue Trudeau has so far navigated deftly.

Indeed, one of the most notable features of last week’s first ministers meeting was the absence at least in public of provincial recrimination over Ottawa’s handing of the NAFTA file.

Speaking of federal-provincial relations, as counterintuitive as that may seem, the decision to set a firm deadline for the legalization of marijuana was almost certainly a tactically inspired one.

Whether one agrees or not with the promise to legalize cannabis, the Liberals did campaign on it. It is not a surprise they have sprung on their unsuspecting provincial counterparts. But absent the July 1 deadline, it is far from certain that all provinces would have resisted the temptation to drag their feet on the way to creating the infrastructure required to sell cannabis legally.

The legal cannabis operation will probably not open to rave reviews. Squeaky wheels will abound on the road to a well-oiled marijuana marketing system. But from a political perspective, the reality of legalization stands to be less daunting than the doomsday picture opponents of the Liberal policy are painting.

On that score, a reality check is almost upon the federal parties.

The Conservative opposition has spent little time in question period quizzing the Liberals on the cannabis issue but they have talked up a storm about its imminent legalization in Lac-Saint-Jean, one of two Conservative ridings that will be the site of mid-mandate byelections on Monday.

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

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