National Column: Cabinet retreat is a chance to learn

by Paul Wells

Summer ends for the Liberals this weekend. On Sunday and Monday, the cabinet meets in Sudbury for a two-day retreat. Thursday and Friday the full Liberal caucus will be in Saguenay, north of Quebec City, for two days of meetings to prepare for the autumn sitting of Parliament. Four days after that, Justin Trudeau leaves for eight days in China, a trip his office views as a high priority.

Sources say the prime minister will generally wear a shirt for this next portion of the year’s activities.

Trudeau has decided his cabinet will meet for two-day retreats every four months.

The first was in St. Andrews, N.B., soon after he appointed his ministers.

During their second retreat in Kananaskis, Alta., in April, ministers heard from Michael Wernick, the Clerk of the Privy Council, the highest-ranking civil servant. He reminded them they were one-eighth of the way to the next election. It is always handy in politics, and never automatic, to get out of the daily grind and look down the road.

Wernick added that by the end of summer, a lot more rubber would be hitting the road. The government had launched 70 consultations on just about every issue. By the autumn – now only weeks away – many would have run their course, and decisions would come due. The context for those decisions is stubbornly slow economic growth and fundamental uncertainty in the United States and the EU.

But their two-day meeting will not be a venue for collective decisions from this cabinet. These retreats never are. Previous prime ministers have tended to use cabinet retreats to plow through large numbers of decisions over formal proposals from individual ministers or from cabinet committees, expressed in written “Memoranda to cabinet,” or MCs. “We have actually really tried – I say ëtried,’ because sometimes we do have decisions we need to get done – but we’ve really tried to not make these MC-based meetings,” a Trudeau adviser told me.

Instead they are mostly designed as professional-development sessions for 30 ministers who were, in most cases, not even members of Parliament before the last election.

At the first retreat in St. Andrews they spent two days learning the basics of program delivery under the tutelage of Sir Michael Barber, the British consultant whose books on “deliverology” have been highly influential in the Trudeau PMO. Whiteboards along the walls. Brainstorming sessions. The group breaking down into groups of six, then reporting back to the full group. Like something out of a Dilbert cartoon.

Barber was back at Kananaskis. Deliverology has its advocates and detractors in this government, but he is said to be skilled at running a meeting. There were other new features at this second retreat. Several chiefs of staff – senior political staffers hired to run a minister’s office – introduced themselves to the whole cabinet, so the minister of, say, defence would know how the guy running the finance minister’s office got there. Then several deputy ministers took questions from the collected chiefs of staff, in a separate room where the staffers had their own professional-development program.

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In the evening, there were parallel “fireside chats” with visitors – Alberta Premier Rachel Notley in one room, author and consultant Dan Gardner in another – speaking informally to any ministers who wanted to attend.

This sort of thing doesn’t happen in the normal course of things in Ottawa. A newly appointed minister is briefed, extensively, by departmental officials on her department’s subject matter – the files and controversies that come with being minister of infrastructure or transport or whatever – but in previous governments they were usually left on their own when it came to
running an office or handling a hard week. Or even to something as simple as making a phone call to a colleague’s department.

These regular professional-development getaways are a feature of this Snapchat cabinet, whose members – mostly young and immersed up to here in the arcana of social media – arrived in Ottawa from nowhere last October and have had to learn the capital’s odd ways together, all at once. Trudeau, his chief of staff, Katie Telford, and his principal secretary, Gerald Butts, decided early that they would not be left to learn for themselves. “It’s really to promote team and collaboration,” the adviser who spoke to me said of the odd schedules.

I offer no warranty for this as a method of governing. Whiteboards and fireside chats don’t make the economy grow faster. But they may improve cohesion, help weaker ministers learn and grow, allow stronger ones to share their secrets. Like much of what this government does, it is at least novel.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

Copyright: 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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