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John Ivison: Who's in Trudeau's cabinet? It doesn't matter, political power lies elsewhere

It is incongruous that Justin Trudeau’s inner circle has too few Westerners, while Andrew Scheer’s has too many. Perhaps they should swap staff for a few days.

All eyes will be on the Liberal leader’s cabinet shuffle at Rideau Hall on Wednesday afternoon. But, to many observers, the confederacy arraigned around the cabinet table is as inconsequential as the deliberations in the House of Commons. Both cabinet and Parliament have been relegated to the role of rubber-stamping decisions taken elsewhere. The prime minister has surrounded himself with advisors of like mind and experience who act like a political praetorian guard.

As Donald Savoie, the country’s most eminent public administration academic, noted in his recent book Democracy in Canada, political power is no longer located in cabinet or in Parliament, but is now held by the prime minister and his immediate coterie of unelected advisors. In Trudeau’s case, virtually the same team that helped get him elected in 2015 will be re-confirmed as his closest political confidantes. Given the national unity issues this minority government is already facing, the preponderance of Ontario voices in that circle should be a concern to all Canadians.

Savoie pointed out that neither the Senate nor cabinet provide regional voices or perspectives any more, with the latter having become little more than a “focus group” for the prime minister. He noted that two key decisions on deployment to Afghanistan – one by a Liberal government, one by a Conservative government – were made in the PMO, without input from the ministers of National Defence or Foreign Affairs.

The current prime minister promised to reverse the shift of governing from the centre when he took power but in Savoie’s opinion, “Trudeau fils has strengthened the centre of government rather than rolled it back.”

Power is run and retained by promoting the almost presidential brand of the prime minister. “Competing brands from ministers only dilute the prime minister’s brand and it is not tolerated,” Savoie said.

In that light, it doesn’t really matter all that much who gets what in the great cabinet sweepstakes. The Liberals lost two ministers in the election – Amarjeet Sohi and Ralph Goodale. Another – Jim Carr – is ill and may opt to be left out on health grounds this time. But that means 31 former ministers are returning to the House of Commons and it seems inconceivable that any will be dropped from cabinet.

That means what we are talking about is a shuffling of deckchairs – if not on the Titanic, then perhaps on the Queen Mary, a cruise ship that is permanently docked and no longer fit for purpose.

The speculation on who is going where should be treated with suitable skepticism until confirmed but it seems a good bet that Bill Morneau will return as finance minister, following vocal lobbying from Bay Street, and Chrystia Freeland will be asked to play up her Albertan patrimony as minister for inter-governmental affairs.

CBC reported that former trade minister Francois-Philippe Champagne will be Canada’s new foreign affairs minister, which makes some sense, given the need to get the modernized NAFTA agreement over the finishing line. Former Heritage minister, Pablo Rodriguez, is tipped as the next Government House leader. Putting a veteran Quebecer in such a sensitive role also looks sound, given the resurgence of the Bloc Québécois. Bill Blair, the former police chief, would slot in seamlessly as Goodale’s replacement at Public Safety and Jonathan Wilkinson, one of the Liberal Party’s few bright lights in the West is tipped for Environment, which most people assume will be vacated by Catherine McKenna. Her new portfolio remains a matter of intrigue, although Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) is rumoured. Tourism minister Mélanie Joly, who was demoted from her previous job as Heritage minister, is said to be in line for a promotion after having served her time in the penalty box.

Trudeau has shown no sign of reversing the shift of power into his own office

After that, who really cares? Trudeau needs to keep his backbench conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs with the stimulus of possible promotion, so it is likely he will create some new cabinet spots by splitting off climate change from the environment file and appointing junior ministers of state to run the country’s six regional economic development agencies. The six – which cover Atlantic Canada, southern Ontario, northern Ontario, Quebec’s regions, the North and Western Canada – were all previously wrapped into ISED, run by an MP from Mississauga, Navdeep Bains.

But that re-jig will do little to arrest the continuing disintegration of Canada’s democratic representation.

Savoie noted the tensions in our national institutions long before they were exacerbated by the Liberal election victory, which further concentrated their power base in the urban areas of central Canada.

Trudeau has shown no sign of reversing the shift of power into his own office. Creating junior ministerial positions for regional economic development and rural Canada will not expose the prime minister to the broader thinking that would help him to govern in this new reality.

Unless the prime minister has a surprise up his sleeve, he does not look set to move beyond the narrow obsessions that have left the federation so unbalanced.

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