Liberals’ post-election moves suggest renewal isn’t a priority

It’s early days since the Oct. 21 electoral reshuffling of the federal deck, but not too early for three take-aways from the Liberals’ initial response to the election results.

First, in contrast with the aftermath of the 2015 vote, Justin Trudeau has given himself a full month to put together a second-term cabinet and chart a way forward in a hung Parliament.

On the plus side, that could be construed as a welcome sign of prudence. After all, when Trudeau and his team last shuffled the cabinet in January, they almost sank the Liberal ship in the process.

The crew that presided over that disaster is, for the most part, still at the table in the same command positions.

On the minus side, it suggests the Liberal brain trust did not turn its mind to a contingency plan to transition from a governing majority to a minority until the results forced it to acknowledge the party’s diminished circumstances.

The assumption that Trudeau would ultimately be granted a second majority seems to have lingered long after the polls started consistently suggesting that such an outcome was unlikely.

The probability that the Liberals would be shut out of the Prairies on election night — with resulting tensions on the front of national unity — was on the radar long before the campaign started.

To watch the clutching of pearls that has attended the backlash Trudeau’s victory has elicited in parts of Western Canada, one might think his inner circle was wilfully blind to growing dissatisfaction in Alberta and Saskatchewan with the prime minister’s policies in the lead-up to the campaign.

Second, the choice of late November to swear-in the cabinet means there will be little or no time for Parliament to convene before the end of the year.

If a throne speech is to be presented — and the confidence of the House of Commons in the minority government tested — before the new year, it will be drafted with minimal input from the cabinet.

The new blood injected into the Liberal caucus by the election would have little influence on the defining road map of this second term.

Many of the ministers who will be sworn in this month will not have fully staffed offices until January. With the exception of those keeping their current portfolios, they will need at least a few weeks to be fully briefed on their departments.

The amount of input the opposition parties are to have in a throne speech that at least one of them will have to support to ensure the survival of the government is also an open question.

Among many others, the prime minister has spoken to the mayors of Calgary, Saskatoon and Regina since the election. But as of midweek, he apparently had not found the time to reach out to his NDP counterpart.

Third, the shape of Trudeau’s palace guard going forward remains unclear.

So far, the few moves made on the transition file do not speak to a strong inclination for renewal.

The main news on that front last week pertained to the recruitment of former federal minister Anne McLellan, along with Canada’s ambassador to France, Isabelle Hudon, to help with the process.

In the past four years, McLellan, who was the senior Alberta minister in the cabinets of Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, has become one of Trudeau’s go-to troubleshooters.

Over its first term, she advised the government on matters ranging from the legalization of cannabis to the rules that should govern the relationship between the Prime Minister’s Office and the attorney general.

But as wise as her advice to the prime minister may have been, her appointment to the transition team speaks to a palace guard more inclined to stay within its comfort zone than one looking for fresh eyes.

By the same token, it is not necessary to doubt Hudon’s ambassadorial qualities and her undeniable networking skills to also wonder what she brings to the transition table.

The notion that she was brought in the loop to provide Quebec input on the way forward has mystified those who toil in the province’s political backrooms.

Hudon has been one of the most public faces of Trudeau’s gender equality initiatives at home and abroad, but her network in Quebec extends most deeply within the province’s corporate circles.

Surely, no one in the PMO believes that is the best place to look for a sounding board as to what makes Quebec tick.

Over its first term, Trudeau’s PMO was consistently criticized in Quebec and in Western Canada for being overly Ontario-centric.

Sure, the Liberal cabinet and the PMO boasted a wide regional representation, but power was perceived to be concentrated in Ontario hands.

If Trudeau is to lead a unifying and sustainable minority government, he will need to turn it into something more than Queen’s Park on the Rideau.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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