Trudeau faces tough cabinet picks

One advantage of the new slimmed-down Liberal caucus is that Justin Trudeau has fewer people to disappoint when he chooses his next cabinet.

The Nov. 20 swearing-in of Trudeau’s next ministry is still several weeks away, but cabinet speculation is already rampant in Ottawa.

The big question so far has revolved around how Trudeau will make sure that Alberta and Saskatchewan are represented around the cabinet table. But that’s just one of the conundrums the prime minister faces in shuffling the ministry to fit the new reality of a minority government.

Here are some of the other hard decisions Trudeau needs to make in the weeks ahead, floated on the assumption that he’s using this extra-long time to do a significant overhaul.

Finance: Ministers tend to stay a long time at finance. Jim Flaherty stayed in that job through eight years and two elections after Stephen Harper appointed him as his first finance minister in 2006.

Paul Martin’s tenure stretched nine years and two elections, too, when Jean Chretien was prime minister. So, Bill Morneau, based on that recent history, may well be assuming that nothing much changes for him on Nov. 20.

But Canada has never had a female finance minister and Trudeau may want to use this opportunity to do a because-it’s-2019 appointment to this very senior job.

A natural choice would be Chrystia Freeland, but it would also mean moving her from the foreign affairs post where she’s well respected and effective.

Public safety: The defeat of Ralph Goodale isn’t just a blow to Trudeau’s western representation, but also to a ministry where Goodale’s age, experience and general level-headedness was extremely valuable.

Goodale was the voice of public safety in an uncertain world.

There is also an obvious replacement here, too: Bill Blair, the former Toronto police chief who now serves as border security minister, re-elected in Scarborough, Ont. — though no one knows whether this is obvious to Trudeau.

Government House leader: Of all the jobs in Trudeau’s cabinet, this is the one that will be most transformed in the switch from majority to minority. It is now no longer an administrative job — getting bills through the Commons — but a negotiating one.

Trudeau’s government will need to work co-operatively with the Bloc Quebecois and the New Democrats to get anything passed in a fractious chamber.

Bardish Chagger, the current House leader re-elected in her home town of Kitchener, Ont., may need to be replaced with someone more bilingual and Quebec-based, given the Bloc’s new clout in the Commons.

Quebec MPs Marc Miller or Steven MacKinnon are among those named as possible replacements.

Federal-provincial relations: Trudeau once held this post for himself, but the election of Doug Ford’s government in Ontario created the need for a full-time minister devoted to keeping peace in the federation.

Dominic LeBlanc, Trudeau’s childhood friend, was initially assigned that duty, but he had to put his job on hold when diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

LeBlanc was re-elected last week in his home province of New Brunswick, but he is still undergoing treatment for his illness and likely not able to assume the massive national-unity task facing the new government.

In this case, there is no clear runner-up for a job that could be crucial; whether it’s negotiating carbon taxes, equalization or pharmacare with the provinces.

Manitoba MP Jim Carr, the trade-diversification minister who announced last week that he was undergoing cancer treatment, would have been a good choice for this post or the natural resources ministry.

His absence from cabinet will be felt almost as keenly as Goodale’s, though Trudeau could presumably put him back in some kind of portfolio when he’s on the mend.

Environment: Climate change will be a dominant theme in the next Parliament and Trudeau may well want to give Ottawa’s Catherine McKenna a break from a job where she’s attracted a lot of criticism — a lot of it personal and some of it downright threatening.

Steven Guilbeault, the prominent Quebec environmental activist newly elected as a Liberal MP in Quebec, is seen as a future minister.

But Trudeau may not want to put the all-important environment file in the hands of a rookie. Two last-term MPs who have served as parliamentary secretary to McKenna could well be asked to step up: Sean Fraser, a Nova Scotia MP who has earned good reviews on all sides of the House, and Jonathan Wilkinson, a B.C. MP who was promoted to minister of fisheries in his first term.

None of this speculation takes into account the complex mix of gender, geography and other demographics that go into cabinet speculation — it’s just a taste of the kind of talk now circulating among politics-watchers during the current news vacuum.

In the weeks ahead, expect lots more — unless, of course, Trudeau decides to treat this fall’s election as a mere interruption, rather than a reset of his government.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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