Opinion: Freeland has plenty to do, but little guidance from PM

Justin Trudeau frittered away a full month after the election to come up with a new cabinet.

During that month, premiers Jason Kenney and Scott Moe mobilized their anti-Liberal supporters, amplified the animosity left behind by the Liberals in the campaign and deftly set an agenda for the prime minister that now borders on a national unity crisis.

At the same time, billions of dollars in international investment shifted course, as fund managers with an eye on climate change pulled their money out of fossil fuels, and economic forecasters downgraded their expectations for Canada, as well as the global economy.

So what kind of response did Trudeau finally offer with his cabinet shuffle this week? One that was as incoherent as the campaign itself, lacking in vision and strategically placed resources.

In his first comments Wednesday, Trudeau said his government will prioritize economic growth and climate change.

But it’s not at all clear how.

After an election campaign in which economic growth was overshadowed by a focus on affordability, expanding the size of our economy is suddenly top of mind, without a hint of a vision beyond tying it to environmental protection.

Chrystia Freeland will lead the now-urgent attempt to appease the Prairie provinces, and there’s no doubt she has the skills suited for the job. She has already gone toe to toe with U.S. President Donald Trump and his team to successfully conclude the new NAFTA. That experience will serve her well in dealing with Kenney and Moe.

Freeland’s talent is looking past the bombast, ignoring the populist appeal and digging for the crucial facts at the core of complex conflict. Expect her to take the same approach in pulling together the disparate, angry factions on energy and environment.

But she’s also been given five different jobs: She is the vaguely defined “deputy prime minister;” she is intergovernmental affairs minister; she retains responsibility for the new NAFTA; she somehow keeps an “oversight” role of the Foreign Affairs Department despite there being a new minister, and she is the chair of the economy and energy cabinet committee that will make key decisions on the West, climate policy and growth.

So, with that split focus, without vision from the top to carry her through, and with economic damage happening in real time, has her boss given her the support she needs to succeed?

It’s true that she’s not the only minister on the file. Vancouver-area MP Jonathan Wilkinson will take on the environment minister role, while playing up his roots in Saskatchewan.

Newfoundland’s Seamus O’Regan will handle the natural resources file by virtue of coming from an oil-producing province. Winnipeg MP Jim Carr has a new non-cabinet position as special representative for the Prairies.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau obviously has a hand in the economy and he’ll be accompanied by Ottawa MP Mona Fortier, who has a new and curiously named portfolio of “middle class prosperity.”

And hovering in the background is Steven Guilbeault, an accomplished and well-known environmentalist from Quebec, who is now in the heritage portfolio.

But who will pull all these ministries together to create a coherent strategy on sustainable economic growth? Trudeau, who has shown no vision? Or Freeland, who has five jobs?

The challenges are immediate and the stakes are at least as high as they were with the NAFTA talks of the past two years.

Economic growth is slow, but global warming is accelerating faster than feared and Canada’s plan to reel in emissions falls far short of the federal government’s stated ambitions.

More immediately, major investors are pulling out of Canada’s oil and gas sector, either because of poor economics, a rocky approvals process for development or because big institutional investors — Sweden’s central bank, the European Investment Bank, even BlackRock — are finding it harder to justify sinking funds into fossil fuels over the long term.

And the railways that so often carry the oil and gas to port are grinding to a halt because of a labour dispute.

Clearly, boosting economic growth is not just about reconciling oil and gas production with climate goals or making peace with Alberta and Saskatchewan, but those are key pieces of the puzzle, and they also go hand in hand with national unity as well as investor confidence in Canada writ large.

That’s a heavy burden for anyone to bear. For Freeland, it’s been made heavier by a vast and vague mandate and little in the way of vision from her boss.

Heather Scoffield is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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