Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau and his new cabinet took a bus to Rideau Hall and walked up to the Governor General's residence for their swearing in. Hundreds lined the road to greet the new government. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Prime Minister Trudeau and new cabinet now face reality

  • November 5, 2015

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his new 30-member cabinet face big challenges as the new Liberal government now must decide which election promises to make reality, say observers.

Among those promises: bringing 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by Christmas, meaningful action at the upcoming climate change talks in Paris in December and a tax cut for the middle class, paid for with higher taxes on the richest one per cent of Canadians. Trudeau and his government must also respond to the Supreme Court of Canada’s Carter decision on doctor-assisted death before Feb. 6, when its decision to strike down laws against assisted suicide come into effect.

An immediate challenge to the new government is following through on the election campaign pledge to welcome Syrian refugees. New Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Minister John McCallum faces a “huge logistical problem” with the campaign promise, said Mark Cameron, who served as a senior policy advisor to the Harper government and is now executive director of Canadians for Clean Prosperity.

“I don’t envy John with that,” said Pat O’Brien, who served as a Liberal MP for 12 years and an Independent for six months, leaving politics in 2005. He now acts as a consultant for pro-life and pro-family groups..  

“Already campaign promises are catching up to Trudeau. Reality set in pretty fast.”

Many of the groups that help refugees integrate successfully into Canada have been saying that’s too fast, he said.

“We need to bring in more refugees than Harper did but at a more sensitive and realistic pace.”

As for the euthanasia issue, O’Brien said the government could table legislation before the Feb. 6 deadline, but ask the Supreme Court for an extension to get it passed. If the Court refuses, Trudeau should invoke the notwithstanding clause to suspend the Court’s decision until the legislation is passed.

Trudeau kept his promise of gender parity by making 15 women cabinet ministers. More than half of Trudeau’s cabinet, however, are brand new MPs who have never even served in the House of Commons before, never mind held complex cabinet portfolios.

“That is a potential time bomb,” said O’Brien. The new ministers will have to “get up to speed” very fast both in the House and on their portfolios and they are “bound to make mistakes,” he said.

Cameron pointed out that the Justice, Environment and Defence portfolios were also given to brand new MPs. Cameron knows Environment Minister Catherine McKenna “pretty well” because she has been organizing the Banff Forum, an annual public policy conference he has attended for a number of years.

“She doesn’t have an environment background, but she has one in law, international development and international justice,” he said. Since the Paris environment talks are a “big international negotiation, her background will probably serve her quite well.”

McKenna’s new portfolio is called Environment and Climate Change, signalling the new direction the Trudeau government intends to take on this file.

“There’s no question climate change is a challenge” and the Holy Father has highlighted its importance, said O’Brien, even though experts “seem to disagree.”

Cameron pointed out the new Justice Minister and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould is a former B.C. Crown prosecutor, advisor to the B.C. Treaty Commission and served as a regional chief in the B.C. Assembly of First Nations. Trudeau has promised to implement the Calls to Action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s executive summary. The TRC examined the legacy of the Indian residential schools and the abuses that occurred there over a century and a half until the final school was closed in 1996. The commission made 94 recommendations, including increased spending on education, national standards for child welfare systems, changes to the oath of citizenship to acknowledge Canada’s treaty obligations to First Nations and that Pope Francis come to Canada to make a personal apology for Church abuses.

Many experienced cabinet ministers from previous Liberal governments have returned to the front bench, such as former Liberal Leader Stephane Dion in Foreign Affairs, Ralph Goodale in Public Safety and former Public Works Minister Scott Brison is now Treasury Board president. Former Defense Minister John McCallum has been given the Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship portfolio.

Though O’Brien is happy to see more women elected and in cabinet, he did not like Trudeau’s promise of gender parity in cabinet.

“I don’t think it sets a good precedent,” he said. “A future cabinet might be better served with two-thirds women. Would you then have to have half men?

“It’s political correctness and consistent with his being a left-leaning Liberal,” perhaps the “most left-leaning prime minister in Canadian history.”

Cameron said he thought the gender parity promise “worked pretty well” in putting “very qualified women in senior portfolios,” something that might not have happened if one had followed seniority.

“I wish Mr. Trudeau well as Prime Minister,” said O’Brien. “I didn’t support him. I could never support a man who would deny MPs the right to vote their conscience on key moral issues — life-and-death issues like abortion and euthanasia.”

O’Brien said Trudeau ran a great campaign of “optimism and hope” while the Conservatives ran a terrible campaign and the NDP “collapsed.” But he said Trudeau “has a lot of growing up to do,” especially in developing a more “mature moral judgment.”

After the swearing in, Trudeau stood with his new cabinet out in front of Rideau Hall and told journalists: “This is going to be a period of slight adjustment for a number of people in the political world in Canada because government by cabinet is back.” Trudeau promised more openness and transparency.

Every government comes in with good intentions of “empowering back benchers and cabinet ministers,” Cameron said, adding he hoped the government would deliver. “But as soon as there is a mistake or a communications challenge, the forces of discipline and staying on message reassert themselves.”

Trudeau, a Catholic, swore on a Bible and included the optional “so help me God” in the various oaths, as did slightly more than half of the new ministers. The rest chose to make a declaration without a holy book or invoking God.

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