National Column: Hyperactive Trudeau not waiting for new year

It’s really a beta version of his government that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is introducing to the House of Commons this week.

More than half of his ministers are taking a seat in the Commons for the first time on Thursday, and a good number of them cannot yet count on the backing of a full staff to see them through their parliamentary baptism of fire.

It has barely been a month since they have all been sworn in.

Jean ChrÈtien, who was first elected in late October 1993, did not reopen Parliament until almost three months later.

In 2006, Stephen Harper gave himself more than two months before his minority Conservative government entered the Commons.

In his new role, Trudeau is turning out to be a bit of an Energizer Bunny. Like the rabbit in the iconic commercial, his batteries don’t seem to run out. Time will tell whether his on/off switch functions as well, if at all.

The prime minister is eager to bring in the retargeted family tax cuts he campaigned on. Those – along with the costs of the Liberal Syrian refugee resettlement plan – are to be put to votes over the short parliamentary sitting.

But in practical terms, that could have waited until after the new year with little harm done to the 2016 tax planning of Canadians or to the capacity of the government to spend on resettling refugees.

Similarly, the parliamentary committees Trudeau plans to put in place to deal with time-sensitive files such as medically assisted suicide or the Trans-Pacific Trade deal will be hard-pressed to accomplish much between now and the first weeks of January.

In opposition, Trudeau revelled in his life on the road – outside the Parliament Hill fishbowl. His sense that the fortunes of his government will not necessarily play out on the stage of the Commons may account for his willingness to treat this first sitting more as an audition than a definitive production.

Before this fall, no federal party had ever jumped from third to first place. It is possible that few anticipated the magnitude of the staffing challenge that stood to result from that feat.

The Liberal support crew that crossed the aisle from opposition to government along with Trudeau was the smallest ever. From 36 offices in opposition, the party in government now has to fill positions in 184,
including 31 ministerial suites plus the PMO.

The civil service was always going to play a larger role in the affairs of a Liberal government than it did under Stephen Harper. In these early days, it is doing so as much by default as by design.

The other collateral consequence of Trudeau’s decision to hit the ground running has been to consolidate the already uncommonly strong links between his and Kathleen Wynne’s Ontario government.

Much of the intellectual and strategic impetus behind his victory hailed from Queen’s Park’s Liberal backrooms and it is the place the new government has turned to for seasoned staff. Ontario is lining up to be the major presence in Trudeau’s corridors of power, like what Quebec was in the days of his father, Brian Mulroney and Jean ChrÈtien.

Past federal governments had an adversarial relationship with their Ontario counterparts. But for a rare time the Liberals are in power at tandem at Queen’s Park and on Parliament Hill. For better or for worse,
the close ties between the two governments could become a defining feature of Trudeau’s mandate.

As Liberals pour into the national capital, the other parties are undergoing a brain drain of sorts.

NDP campaign chief Anne McGrath has migrated to Edmonton and Alberta’s New Democrat government. Thomas Mulcair’s chief-of-staff, Alain Gaul, has gone back to Montreal.

The Bloc QuÈbÈcois has lost the party’s second-in-command, Catherine Fournier, to PQ Leader Pierre Karl Peladeau and the national assembly.

With no Conservative government in any of the four larger provinces, hundreds of former aides to the previous government make up a wandering army of political orphans.

A hyperactive prime minister may be just what the opposition parties need to get over their post-election doldrums.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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