Top News

John Ivison: The cabinet shuffle is a puzzle


François -Philippe Champagne has been promising a tougher line on China for over a year.

It was a curious quirk of providence that at the precise moment he finally announced tough new measures aimed at addressing human rights violations in Xinjiang province, he was being shuffled out of the foreign affairs portfolio.

The press release outlining new measures to combat the repressive surveillance, mass detentions and mistreatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang province hit the wires at 9.02 on Tuesday morning, just as Champagne was taking part in a virtual cabinet shuffle that saw him moved from foreign affairs to innovation, science and industry.

The look of forced geniality on his face was reminiscent of Jody Wilson-Raybould, after she was demoted from justice to veteran’s affairs two years ago.

It would be hard to argue that Champagne has been a triumph as Canada’s most senior diplomat. The two Michaels remain in a Chinese prison and Canada has yet to produce a new China policy framework to replace the gushing “comprehensive engagement” that characterized the first four years of the Trudeau government.

He is said to have promoted the idea of a pivot away from China in terms of trade and investment but it was rejected when it reached cabinet. All that was left was a muddled announcement about how the relationship is “multi-dimensional,” meaning we should cooperate with China on shared concerns like climate change, and work with like-minded countries to defend the rules-based system when the Chinese try to abuse it.

It was an odd re-shuffle in other ways

That hasn’t meant a lot in practical terms – at least not until the Xinjiang announcement, when the government, in concert with the U.K., said it will take a series of measures to prohibit goods produced with forced labour in Xinjiang, which supplies one fifth of the world’s cotton. The Chinese are said to be forcing up to half a million Uyghurs to harvest the cotton, according to a report by the Center for Global Policy, a Washington-based think-tank.

It was an odd re-shuffle in other ways.

Marc Garneau, the transport minister, replaces Champagne at global affairs, a timely appointment as the Biden Administration takes office. Garneau has long let it be known that he is well connected in the U.S., going back to his NASA days. He will likely prove a steady hand but the surprise is that Trudeau has elevated a former leadership rival. Unlike Abraham Lincoln, the prime minister has never bought into the team of rivals concept. Those daring to dissent from the Trudeau line have usually found it to be a career-limiting move.

We must take at face value Navdeep Bains explanation that he is leaving cabinet to spend more time with his family.

He was first elected in 2004 (albeit with a hiatus between 2011 and 2015), he has two young daughters and, as he pointed out, he has lived “the Canadian dream,” as the son of a cabinet maker who served as a cabinet minister.

Bains is a founding member of Team Trudeau, having been present at the small gathering of family, friends and political operatives in Mount Tremblant, Quebec, in summer 2012, when Justin Trudeau decided to run for the Liberal leadership.

Bains has been a formidable organizer for the Liberal Party in the seat-rich Mississauga area. The Liberals swept the commuter suburbs around Toronto in 2015, in no small measure because of Bains, who spent most mornings at the local GO train station, handing out “Tired of your local commute?” flyers.

His five years as innovation and industry minister have been less successful. The much-hyped “supercluster” strategy has been slow to take off. The Parliamentary Budget Officer said last year that it is unlikely to meet its jobs or financial goals in the next 10 years. When the PBO asked Bains’ department how it intended to measure the impact on innovation, it didn’t receive a reply.

A new hand on the tiller at industry is probably overdue. Canada is struggling to grow firms to scale to compete globally; business investment is lagging behind other advanced economies; our industries are less productive than those of our competitors; we don’t have inter-provincial free trade, yet we do have a competitiveness-crushing regulatory burden. As the OECD noted, it takes 168 days longer to obtain a permit for a general construction project in Canada than in the U.S.

Champagne is smart, cheerful and energetic, which is not a bad combination. “It sends the right signal to industry sectors at a time when we have to marshall the energy of our country,” said one official, of the new industry minister.

Other changes included the welcome return of Jim Carr, after a cancer scare, as minister without portfolio, and Omar Alghabra, to replace Garneau at transport. He is another founding member of Team Trudeau and would likely have been in cabinet much sooner, had he not been another MP from Mississauga.

It’s a little puzzling that the prime minister didn’t take the opportunity to cull under-performing ministers.

But this shake-up was done with an election in mind in a matter of months. Bumping bunglers might have upset the gender balance in cabinet and would be an admission of imperfection from a prime minister who prefers to present his government as infallible.

Perhaps the most elated member of cabinet is Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland. Her only serious rival for the Liberal leadership, when Trudeau goes, is Champagne. The high-profile foreign affairs ministry has been the launch pad for prime ministerial ambitions for previous incumbents ranging from Louis St. Laurent to Lester B. Pearson and Jean Chrétien. Now, instead of making a name for himself as a fighter for freedom, human rights and the rule of law, Champagne will vanish into the enigmatic black hole of innovation and productivity.

As government sources pointed out whenever I suggested Champagne has been demoted: “It’s a big job”. It is. But it is not foreign affairs, one of the three great offices of state.

Champagne put a brave face on things in the virtual swearing-in but his expression betrayed him. He can take comfort in the advice of former Thatcher-era minister, Alan Clark, that “in the end, we are all sacked and it’s always awful. It is as inevitable as death following life. If you are elevated there comes a time when you are demoted. Even prime ministers.”

[email protected]
Twitter.com/IvisonJ

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2021

Did this story inform or enhance your perspective on this subject?
1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

Recent Stories