A little over an hour before members of the new cabinet began strolling up the tree-lined driveway to Rideau Hall, Abacus Data released new survey results that suggest 81 per cent of Canadians feel it’s time for a change in government.
Though the poll’s results are suboptimal for the Liberals, they don’t necessarily portend doom for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government. Of those who want change, more than half say they see a good alternative to the Liberals. But 31 per cent say they don’t see a better option.
Recent byelections have shown stronger Liberal support than most polls suggest.
So while Canadians might be tiring of a government now approaching its eighth anniversary, they’re also not quite clamouring for one of the other parties on offer.
Perhaps Wednesday’s cabinet shuffle will go some small way toward satisfying voters’ desire for change. Still, some important things remain the same.
There are now new ministers for defence, health, public safety, justice, agriculture, heritage, immigration, housing, revenue, employment, small business, social development, sport, transport, fisheries, Treasury Board, veterans affairs and Crown-Indigenous relations.
There’s also an entirely new portfolio — citizens’ services (the new minister, Terry Beech, at least becomes the answer to a future trivia question).
Trudeau has tended in the past to demote rather than banish. This time, he was less willing to offer second chances.
Marco Mendicino, who might have expected to get a less-prominent portfolio after his rocky time as public safety minister, was instead bounced from cabinet entirely. Between retirements and other exits, more than a half-dozen people who were ministers when the week began are ministers no longer.
Seven Liberal MPs were elevated to fill the empty chairs around the cabinet table. They are decidedly younger than the group they’re replacing (the average age of the departing ministers is roughly 61, while the average age of the incoming ministers is about 47). They are broadly more diverse. Several of them, as luck would have it, also represent ridings where there was a reasonably close race in 2021.
Some of the changes within cabinet are particularly notable.
Pascale St-Onge tags in as the new point person for the government’s tussle with the Internet giants — a fight that pushed Pablo Rodriguez to his limits. Karina Gould, who oversaw the government’s child care legislation (and is herself expecting a child in January), will now be one of the government’s most prominent faces and voices in Parliament as House leader.
Marc Miller, who seemed to bring both momentum and stability to Crown-Indigenous relations, takes over at immigration, one of the pillars of the government’s economic agenda.
Moving Sean Fraser, the former immigration minister, to housing gives the government a better “communicator” (in the parlance of official Ottawa) to fight the battle over housing affordability. Moving Jean-Yves Duclos to public services and Anita Anand to Treasury Board seems at first glance to risk sidelining two of the more credible figures in the Trudeau government, but a government source suggested on Wednesday that there is a plan to deploy them as key economic ministers.
That same source said the shuffle’s primary aim was to put the government’s strongest performers on files that need attention — particularly economic files.
But for all that changed, much stayed the same.
Chrystia Freeland remains as finance minister and deputy prime minister, despite months of wild rumours about her possible departure. Francois-Philippe Champagne, the fast-talking dealmaker, remains minister of innovation.
Steven Guilbeault, the celebrated activist who is sometimes a lightning rod for recalcitrant premiers, is still the minister of environment and climate change. Jonathan Wilkinson, the yin to Guilbeault’s yang, is still the minister of natural resources (though he now also has “energy” in his official title).
Keeping those four ministers in place suggests a government that doesn’t think it needs to change a whole lot about itself or its basic agenda.
The relative wisdom of that judgment might not be clear until the ballots from the next election are counted.
When Trudeau was asked Wednesday whether he hoped to see out the full life of the government’s confidence-and-supply agreement with the NDP — which isn’t set to formally expire until June 2025 — he said only that the government has “so much work to do over the coming years.”
That, at least, is beyond dispute — both practically and politically.
Where do the Liberals go from here?
When they haven’t been struggling to assert control of the foreign interference controversy or fend off attacks about inflation and the cost of living, the government has been more or less proceeding with an agenda broadly focused on stronger social supports, increased immigration, stringent new climate regulations and government support for the transition to a net-zero economy.
It’s hard to imagine it completely changing that approach.
Maybe this government simply needs to do a better job of communicating what it already has done. But significant pieces of that agenda — particularly on climate and energy — have yet to be put in place. And Trudeau still seems to be lacking a decent answer to the unreasonable cost of housing.
Even Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre’s argument on housing — particularly the idea that local “gatekeepers” are making it unreasonably hard to build more houses — implicitly acknowledges that the basic problem is municipal, not federal. But that’s not an argument that federal voters can be expected to accept in 2025.
So a lot might be riding on Fraser and his ability to point to things the government has actually done to make the housing market better. This government needs more ribbon cuttings.
The Liberals can’t offer voters a completely different government. Aside from some new faces, they don’t seem particularly interested in offering dramatic change anyway.
So their re-election hopes may rest on being able to make the case that the country and Canadians’ lives are changing for the better — or at least that the change offered by the other parties would be worse.
Either way, there is a lot of work to do, regardless of who is officially responsible for doing it.
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