Cabinet choices reflect PM’s confidence

Monday’s federal cabinet Hebert, Chantal shuffle is the work of a government that remains relatively confident it can navigate to a second term next fall without altering its current course.

It was not designed to rock the Liberal pre-election boat.

In that spirit, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau passed on his last opportunity to play musical chairs with the government’s ministerial hot seats.

Observers parsing the tea leaves will also look in vain for manoeuvres designed to shore up the government’s defences on the increasingly volatile Alberta front. That may be as much by default as by design.

With only three MPs from Alberta, it is not as if Trudeau had a lot of cards to play with.

The latter statement applies to the shuffle as a whole.

The Liberals rose from third place to government little more than three years ago.

As a result, both their caucus and their cabinet feature a high proportion of first-time MPs.

That only compounds the tendency of first-term governments to boast low attrition rates.

Prime ministers do not habitually remove ministers who are about to run for re-election from the cabinet. In the aftermath of Scott Brison’s decision to retire, all of Trudeau’s remaining ministers sound like they are staying put.

If that were to change, it might be as a result of one of Monday’s moves.

At the time of her swearing-in as Canada’s first Indigenous justice minister three years ago, Jody Wilson-Raybould was widely seen as one of the more promising stars of the Trudeau cabinet.

Since then, though, it had become an open secret on Parliament Hill that, at least in the eye of her political masters, but also in many quarters of the legal community, her performance had not lived up to the advance billing.

Still, few expected Wilson-Raybould to be shuffled from her front-line justice post to the second-tier post of minister in charge of veterans’ affairs before the end of this Parliament.

The result of the recent Quebec election may have accelerated her transfer.

Wilson-Raybould’s successor, Montreal MP David Lametti, boasts impeccable legal credentials, as well as the capacity to communicate efficiently in both official languages.

The appointment of a Quebec minister as attorney general comes at a time when the Coalition Avenir Quebec government is about to place itself on a collision course with Trudeau over charter rights and religious freedoms.

Filling the vacancy created by Brison’s resignation was the official pretext for Monday’s shuffle.

With Jane Philpott’s appointment as president of the Treasury Board, Trudeau has brought one of his more efficient performers back to the front line.

Philpott has earned the reputation of bringing a steady hand to her ministerial duties, a trait that may go some way to assuage corporate Canada’s concerns about the government’s fiscal course.

What is certain is that Philpott’s new role is more central to the long-term operations of the government than it is to its short-term electoral marketing.

Who knows? If the Liberals are successful next fall, her entry in the still male-dominated circle of economic ministers could put her on track to becoming Canada’s first female finance minister.

Her successor at Indigenous services, Seamus O’Regan, has had a challenging time as veterans affairs minister, a fact that does not at first glance make him an obvious candidate for the difficult role he is inheriting. But Philpott is leaving behind a road map that should keep him on course until the election.

Trudeau was never going to leave Nova Scotia — a province the Liberals swept in the last election — without a seat at the cabinet table. He was also never going to find a replacement with quite the profile of the departed Brison, a former Tory whose appeal crossed traditional party lines in the Atlantic region.

By putting South Shore-St. Margarets MP Bernadette Jordan in charge of a new rural economic development portfolio, Trudeau is clearly hoping to blunt the Conservative edge in rural Canada, while putting the Atlantic regional development file back in the hands of a minister from the region.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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