Opinion piece

Opinion: Trudeau needs to shake up his team

With the House of Commons adjourned for the summer, the debate over whether an early election is necessary will go on for a few more weeks. But the need for a stronger cabinet team is not debatable.

That’s why in the event Prime Minister Justin Trudeau forgoes the option of an early fall election, he will have to turn his mind to a midterm cabinet shuffle.

Notwithstanding the prime minister’s repeated assertions that Harjit Sajjan has been a diligent minister, the government does need a new broom at national defence before it again faces the Commons.

In the matter of rampant sexual misconduct in the Armed Forces, the buck should in fairness stop with the prime minister himself.

He spent his political career boasting about his feminist credentials, only to allow an independently documented systemic problem to fester on his watch.

But one can sympathize with the plight of the embattled Sajjan and still know that he is no longer the person the situation calls for.

On the face of ever-mounting evidence that key members of Canada’s military command have spent the past six years pulling wool over Sajjan’s ministerial eyes, he no longer has the moral authority or the credibility to clean house.

If and when Canada is presented with a revamped or a new cabinet, more eyes will be on the national defence portfolio than at any time in recent federal history. And with good reason.

Midterm shuffles almost always involve fixing weak links in the chain of ministerial command, and the current cabinet features more than one.

But if Trudeau chose to try to go the four-year distance of his current term rather than call an election, he would still have the option of injecting new blood in his team.

Brian Mulroney, Stephen Harper and Jean Chrétien all brought unelected ministers on board at various points in their tenures.

Chrétien most famously did in the aftermath of the 1995 Quebec referendum, in recognition that his government faced an unprecedented unity challenge it was not well-equipped to handle.

The post-pandemic economic recovery and the increasingly pressing climate change issue will both loom large on the agenda of the second half of Trudeau’s current term. So will Indigenous reconciliation. Those are all interconnected. It will take some deft(er) hands on deck to chart a coherent way forward for Canada.

If, for example, former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney is serious about putting his money where his mouth has been, there is nothing to stop Trudeau from handing him a senior cabinet role later this summer.

Over the next two years, the main challenge to the unity of the country is likely to come from Alberta.

At the best of times, the absence of that province at the federal table is unhealthy for the federation.

These are anything but the best of times in Alberta.

The terms of two of the province’s seasoned mayors, Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi and Edmonton’s Don Iveson, are drawing to a close. Each would be a welcome addition to Trudeau’s cabinet.

These days, of course, the prime minister is spending more time shoring up a narrative to justify an early election than promoting the merits of serving a full term.

But if he is to send Canada back to the polls in a few weeks, the least one would expect that the Liberal candidate lineup reflect a serious effort at fixing some of the gaping holes in the cabinet.

If the past is any indication, this is one election where the Liberals would find it in their interest to spend less time showcasing Trudeau and more time on his post-pandemic team.

Riding a wave of change, the prime minister carried his party to power in 2015.

But four years later, he earned a second probationary victory in large part as a result of the failings of his rivals.

Andrew Scheer could not convince enough voters he was ready for prime time.

The NDP was still reeling from having seen its strongest ever bid for government fail. Its rookie leader, Jagmeet Singh, looked out of his depth.

Over the pandemic, Singh has found his footing. The NDP has traditionally been more comfortable in the self-appointed role of parliamentary conscience than in that of federal government-in-waiting. Minority rule plays to that inclination.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole still has to convince many in his party that it is not possible to win an election in 2021 by campaigning as if it were 2011. But for all of his travails, he is more sure-footed than his predecessor. He also brings more policy depth to the conversation.

Chrétien spent his third campaign standing shoulder to shoulder with then-finance minister Paul Martin – especially in Quebec – and was successful.

Harper’s third campaign, by comparison, was preceded by an exodus of ministerial talent and it failed.

The fact is that with every campaign, the coattails of the incumbent become shorter. On that score, Trudeau is no exception.

Chantal Hébert is a National Affairs writer.