Hébert: Uncommonly busy political pre-season

Uncommonly busy political pre-season

Parliament reopens Monday on the heels of an uncommonly busy political pre-season.

Here are some of its highlights:

Prime ministers do not normally shuffle their cabinet in a major way after little more than a year in office. Justin Trudeau used the extraordinary circumstance of the changing of the guard in the White House to rearrange his top deck earlier rather than later. So far, the reviews are mostly positive.

Stéphane Dion’s exit from cabinet was not as gracious as one might have wished, given his years of service. It is clear he had no burning desire to move on to a diplomatic niche. He has yet to accept the embassy he has been offered. But his replacement as minister of foreign affairs by Chrystia Freeland was not only a necessity but a no-brainer.

Even Jason Kenney — otherwise a leading Conservative critic of the prime minister — had good words for the appointment of Ahmed Hussen as immigration minister. The new minister came to Canada as a refugee from Somalia at the age of 16. And the promotion of Quebec MP François-Philippe Champagne — a Jean Chrétien protégé — to a senior cabinet role was well received in Quebec.

Trudeau is not the first prime minister to go on tour during a parliamentary break, but none had ever embraced the town hall format in the way he did over the past two weeks. Despite a few stumbles — notably on language — the road show was mostly successful. If the prime minister was as effective in question period as he is tackling skeptical voters, chances are he would grace the House of Commons with his presence on a more regular basis.

Donald Trump’s inauguration came with a silver lining — as most challenges in politics tend to. The timing of a cabinet retreat in Calgary the same week as the new White House resuscitated the Keystone projects helped Trudeau remind Albertans of his own pro-pipeline efforts.

It also diverted attention from a load of unfinished federal business, notably on the health-care and electoral reform fronts. Absent the U.S. inauguration and its headline-grabbing followup, questions as to the sea of red ink the Liberal fiscal ship is navigating in might have had pride of place in the coverage.

The overdue Liberal decision — as reported first by the Globe and Mail on Friday — to bring out in the open the controversial cash-for-access events that put Trudeau on the defensive for much of the fall involves more tweaking of an existing practice than fundamental reform.

In the future, top federal politicians would be banned from offering private face time to well-heeled donors in exchange for hefty contributions to their party’s coffers. The new dispositions would apply not only to members of the ministry, from the prime minister on down, but also to leadership candidates and to opposition leaders.

If anything, the changes may shore up the governing party’s traditional fundraising edge. It is not every corporate mover-and-shaker that wants to be seen sucking up to the opposition in plain sight of the government of the day.

Over on the opposition side, the most notable development has been the transition of Kevin O’Leary from leadership tease to actual contender. If there is a collateral winner of Trudeau’s tour, it may be the reality-show performer. For better or, more probably, for worse, the prime minister’s road show has increased the Conservative thirst for a leader with the star power to compete on the celebrity circuit.

Finally, a word on the call this week by the Public Policy Forum for public funding for Canada’s beleaguered news media.

On the basis of an exhaustive look at what has become a dire situation for most of the mainstream media outfits, the think-tank argues that the only way to reverse a tailspin that could otherwise deprive Canadians of quality information is for the federal government to step in to support it.

Much of the early pushback against the proposal came from journalists who know the ways of governments best because they toil on the political front lines. My fellow columnist, Paul Wells, took the words out of the mouths of many of us in his Friday column.

The PPF report does not say it in so many words but part of the rationale is that a weakened information environment could provide a breeding ground for fake news and a Canadian version of Trumpism.

But what the report does not say is that a news media dependent as never before for its survival on government goodwill would also be highly vulnerable to the whims of a regime ready to use every lever at its disposal to ensure compliance with its messaging.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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