National Column: Cabinet committees hint at a cabinet shuffle

by Paul Wells

In the bad old days of the Soviet Union, Western intelligence agencies used to grab at the tiniest details to figure out, in the absence of reliable information, who was up or down in Moscow. Seating orders on reviewing stands at May Day parades. The placement of articles in Pravda. Musical choices on state radio. Any scrap or tidbit.

One feels a bit ridiculous performing Kremlinology on the most exhibitionist Canadian federal government in memory. But Justin Trudeau released a new list of cabinet committees the other day and I can’t shake the feeling that it means something. So let’s break out the calipers and magnifying glasses and sift through the names for omens and portents of the Trudeau government’s second year.

Cabinet committees meet frequently, some every week, to plan and organize the government’s work. All government decisions filter up through the committee system. They matter. Trudeau and his advisers were flying nearly blind when they named the first committees. Most ministers had never been members of Parliament before. It was anyone’s guess how they’d work together.

The new list leaves some committees almost unchanged, which suggests they’re working fine. These include the powerful Treasury Board, which scrutinizes big spending decisions, and the Diversity and Inclusion committee. Apparently Trudeau does not worry he’s being insufficiently diverse and inclusive. The “Inclusive Growth” committee gets a new name (“Growing the Middle Class”) and a diet, shrinking from 15 ministers to a dozen.

Among the ex-members of the committee on growing the middle class is Chrystia Freeland, which is odd: She wrote an entire book on growing the middle class. The Trudeau gang used to parade her as a guarantor of their economic credibility. Upon reflection, the PM seems to have decided the trade minister is more about foreign policy than the economy – she also departs from the Environment and Energy committee, but moves up to co-chair of Canada in the World and Public Security (one committee, long name). And she remains as chair of the Canada-U.S. Relations committee, which has much to worry about this autumn.

I love this bit: The committee on Agenda and Results, the all-powerful “deliverology” group chaired by the PM itself, grows by one word. It’s now the committee on Agenda, Results and Communications. It is never too soon for a government to start worrying that it is not getting its message out. Even this one. Expect more methodical bragging about results, or rationalization of setbacks, as the case may be.

Biggest changes come last. First, there used to be a committee on Open and Transparent Government, and another on Parliamentary Affairs. They’ve merged. Now the Liberals’ hopes for a happy-face democracy won’t be considered in isolation from the grim realization that some stuff needs to get passed through a Parliament where optimism goes to die. Now the two sentiments will share a meeting room, and for hints about which sentiment has the upper hand, note that fisheries minister Dominic LeBlanc, a politico in the old style, is the committee’s vice-chair, while his successor as government House leader, Bardish Chagger, is an ordinary member. Sad face.

Next: When Chagger replaced him as House leader last Friday, LeBlanc tweeted something opaque about looking forward to “additional responsibilities.” Say hello to the new committee on Litigation Management, with LeBlanc as chairman.

This is the institutional admission of a timeless fact: all governments get sued a lot. This one does not expect to be spared, especially on issues related to reconciliation with First Nations. “Decisions on litigation matters often can’t be left to lawyers,” one senior Liberal told me.

“Everything has important policy repercussions.”

Finally, at Environment (comma Climate change comma Energy; these names were not designed to trip off the tongue), a big move. StÈphane Dion, a former environment minister and Green Shifting Liberal Leader, is out as chair. Off the committee entirely. Replaced as chair by Melanie Joly, who’s the heritage minister and was not previously known for her views on energy policy. It’s all about who gets along well with others, and Dion, who had a hard time letting colleagues take any initiative on his pet file, has been sent packing.

Dion is not banished to Siberia, precisely. He shows up on the Defence Procurement committee, where his eye for detail may help avoid huge spending boondoggles. But his move suggests that in some ways, the real cabinet shuffle was hidden in these endless lists of names.

Copyright: 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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