THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Ottawa’s favourite parlour game has again come to fruition. After weeks of speculation, and few cabinet shifts since the fall 2021 election, Prime Minister Trudeau finally announced a major cabinet shuffle on Wednesday, July 26.
And “major” is an understatement: Seven former cabinet ministers are out. With seven new faces from the Liberal backbenches with “Honourable” in front of their names. Along the way, the Prime Minister also shifted some prominent ministers into new roles, including:
- former Defence Minister Anita Anand to Treasury Board
- former Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair to Defence
- former Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos to Public Services and Procurement
- former House Leader Mark Holland to Health
- former Immigration Minister Sean Fraser to Housing, Infrastructure and Communities, taking on key priorities for the government
- former Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriquez from Heritage to Transport, a major economic portfolio
- former Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge to Heritage, where she will inherit the political battles with global benemoths Google and Meta over recent legislative changes
- and former of Families, Children, and Social Development Karina Gould to House Leader.
The Prime Minister also chose stability instead of change for other key portfolios. Examples include Finance (Freeland); Innovation, Science and Economic Development (Champagne); Global Affairs (Joly); and Environment (Guilbeault).
Preparing for an election. Putting better communicators in key roles. A “wake up call” to his core team. Shifting the focus away from past political missteps. Awarding strong performers. Better preparing for attacks from Pierre Poilievre and the Conservatives. And parting ways with those ministers who have under-performed or failed to deliver on mandate commitments.
All of the aforementioned have been some of the standard—even cliché-type—“reflex” reactions to the changes from political commentators. And there is (limited) merit to these initial assessments.
Shifts in challenging portfolios such as Procurement, Transport, Defence, and Health will present both challenges and opportunities to new ministers. While it takes time for any minister to truly dig in on major programs for which they are now responsible, new ministers can start to articulate “results” to voters, while outlining the vision of the government for critical policy areas.
The reality, however, is far more “cold” in nature: none of these ministerial shifts are likely to move the proverbial political needle. Poll numbers for the Liberals are unlikely to shift as a result. And new faces around the cabinet table rarely help to relay the intended political message of “change”—especially after almost eight years of governing since the fall of 2015.
These moves reflect an intended—and enhanced—focus on the economy and affordability for the Liberals. Such a move is critical as they prepare for the next election, where pocketbook issues are likely to dominate as the core concern for voters. The goal: To regain lost political ground, and to reclaim a compelling and clear narrative focused on the economy, moving into the fall.
Could these changes eventually improve the electoral fortunes for the party? Yes, potentially. But taking on “voter fatigue” for any governing party is unquestionably difficult. Every political brand becomes tarnished. Every government experiences set-backs. And the reality for any leader—even one like the Prime Minister, who has won 3 straight elections—is that there are limited options with respect to putting a new face on a well-established team. A shuffle is one such tool.
Yet it won’t change the inevitable for the Prime Minister: the next election, whenever it comes, is about him. His record. His vision. Much like U.S. elections are never about the vice-presidential choices on a ticket, Canadians don’t vote for cabinet ministers. They vote for leaders. And whether the Prime Minister’s value proposition—and the Liberal brand in his image—can pass a fourthstraight test from Canada’s electorate remains an open question.
The other unquestionable undercurrent to these shifts: a deliberate counter by the Prime Minister to burgeoning leadership campaigns, as certain members of the cabinet had started to test the waters on eventually replacing him. He has made it clear, however, that he has no intention on leaving before the next campaign.
But it will be an uphill climb. The Prime Minister has shown remarkable resilience and an ability to come from behind to win campaigns. Yet he is facing a major challenge, with the Conservatives and Leader Pierre Poilievre leading in every major poll over the last few months—including one from Abacus Data out today, which has the Liberals down by 10 points. The Prime Minister will have his work cut out for him.
With the shuffle now announced, NATIONAL’s Public Affairs experts will be looking at related key developments for clients. Business and not-for-profits leaders alike will need to consider the following:
- the likely release of revised ministerial mandate letters
- major shifts in cabinet committee membership
- notable/major shifts in key policy positions around the economy, growth and key files such as housing, infrastructure, immigration and manufacturing
- emerging themes for a potential Economic Statement in the fall of 2023 and Budget 2024
- and the related machinery of government changes, which will take time to unpack.
With experts in all major Canadian markets, NATIONAL’s experienced pan-Canadian Public Affairs team is well-positioned to support your organization’s advocacy needs. We look forward to hearing from you.