What Trudeau’s committees tell us about his government
Maryantonett Flumian is the president of the Institute on Governance and a former long-serving federal deputy minister.
Sir John A. Macdonald once listed his profession as “cabinet maker” — a light-hearted recognition of the fact that putting a cabinet together is the defining responsibility of a prime minister.
And it’s not just a matter of picking the people who make up a cabinet. Through the configuration of their portfolios and the departments that comprise them, the structure of the House committees and the decision-making processes itself, the PM sets the tone of his government, signals its priorities and determines how effectively they will be accomplished.
So we may infer a great deal from the cabinet that accompanied Prime Minister Justin Trudeau up the walkway to Rideau Hall Wednesday morning — and not only from his vow that ‘government by cabinet’ is back.
First, there’s the size: 30 ministers, a smaller group than Mr. Harper’s last team but by no means without recent precedent. It is also ‘single tier’ in the sense that everyone is a full minister and not merely a “minister of state” (although in legal terms full ministers may also have minister of state responsibilities). This includes some cabinet posts that in the past have been subsumed into other departments in which the ‘senior minister’ held all authority — for example, Status of Women, Sport and Persons with Disabilities, Science and Small Business and Tourism. That appears to signal a somewhat elevated emphasis on these areas. And while democratic renewal has been the responsibility of junior ministers in the past, now it’s the exclusive responsibility of a full minister.
A number of departmental titles have been changed — again, a hard-to-mistake signal of the government’s attitude and approach to key issues. For example, ‘Immigration, Citizenship and Refugees’ surely signals the priority the government attaches to its commitment to bring more refugees to Canada. And styling a new Minister of Environment and Climate Change tells us a great deal about a new focus for Environment Canada.
Then there are apparent changes to the configuration of government departments, signifying not only different priorities and approaches but also an adaptation of government machinery to better ensure the achievement of these goals. For example, we have (presumably from the Department of Industry) Ministers of Innovation, Science and Economic Development; Small Business and Tourism; and Science tout simple. Aside from the recognition of the importance of innovation to our economy, this arrangement promises an elevated level of attention to science as a ministry in its own right — a model that European governments have adopted for years but which Canada has been slow to follow. Similarly, we have a new Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, as well as one of Employment Workforce Development and Labour — presumably drawn from the former Employment and Social Development Canada.
Just as important as the ministry configuration (although with a lower profile) is the way in which the prime minister structures the cabinet committee system. Committee structures and mandates will effectively drive processes and a great deal of thought goes into committee composition.
The Plans and Priorities Committee — a sort of ‘inner cabinet’ chaired by the PM, which ratified the recommendations of other committees — is gone. In its place, apparently, there is a Committee on Agenda and Results. It too is chaired by the PM but — and this is interesting — it’s not comprised of the chairs of other committees, which arguably makes for a less obviously hierarchical structure. Key portfolios are well represented, but beyond Minister Goodale it does not include ministers from earlier Liberal governments.
The new PM is drilling down into how the cabinet system will work and direct the complex and opaque operations of government.
The Treasury Board, the only statutory committee of cabinet, remains in place — as it has since 1867 — and includes all the key economic portfolios, among others. One interesting development is the appointment of the Minister of Immigration, Citizenship and Refugees as vice-chair rather than the Minister of Finance. Aside from drawing on Minister McCallum’s economic background, this might signal a recognition that past Finance ministers did not routinely participate in TB deliberations. On that, Minister McCallum’s past experience as chair of the Expenditure Review Committee under PM Martin may be of use.
The former Operations Committee — which managed the parliamentary agenda, among other responsibilities — has been supplanted by a Committee on Parliamentary Affairs. As one would expect, it is chaired by the Leader of the Government in the House, although the choice of the Minister of Public Services and Procurement as vice-chair is less obvious. Notably, its membership includes the Minister of Democratic Institutions, who will be responsible for parliamentary reform.
In place of the Economic Prosperity Committee (variously named and configured under Prime Minister Harper), there is a Committee on Inclusive Growth, Opportunities and Innovation. It’s a fair guess that the nomenclature reflects Prime Minister Trudeau’s commitment to broader participation in Canadian prosperity, as well as the emphasis on innovation as a driver of growth. One interesting feature is that, while the heavy-hitting economic portfolios are well represented, the committee chair and vice-chair head up two key social departments — something hard to imagine under the previous government.
The establishment of a Committee on Diversity and Inclusion is a striking innovation and sends an unmistakable signal about how important this agenda will be, particularly to the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship who chairs it.
Cabinet usually has had some variant of a Foreign Affairs committee and in this case it takes the form of the Committee on Canada in the World and Public Security. The title would appear to signal a broader take on Canada’s place in the world while holding onto a security focus, particularly given the appointment of the Minister of Public Safety rather than the Minister of Foreign Affairs as its chair. The committee has a sub-committee on Canada-United States Relations, which includes many senior economic and environmental portfolios and is actually larger than the committee to which it reports. This reflects a distinctive emphasis on building bridges (figuratively, perhaps literally) to the United States and is tellingly chaired and co-chaired by the Ministers of International Trade and Public Safety, respectively.
There’s also a Committee on Intelligence and Emergency Management, which will meet on an “as required” basis to address public emergencies and national security incidents. It is chaired by the prime minister — a clear signal of national leadership through times of crisis. It’s another, perhaps less apparent signal that this government is no less concerned about the security of Canadians than was its predecessor.
The establishment of Committee on Open and Transparent Government unmistakably raises the ante on issues such as open government and democratic renewal. While it includes the Minister of Democratic Institutions, it is notably chaired by the Minister of Public Services and Procurement – an area of government activity that has been criticized for alleged opaqueness.
Finally, the Committee on Environment, Climate Change and Energy undoubtedly reflects a shift in the relative importance of environmental issues from the previous government, but just as importantly puts climate change at the head of the agenda. The inclusion of Energy is telling, coming from a leader who has suggested that a poor record on the environment has undermined the credibility of initiatives such as the Keystone pipeline. This committee is not chaired by the Minister of Environment, but rather the Minister of Foreign Affairs (with the International Trade minister as vice-chair). Placing the major foreign relations ministers in these positions undoubtedly reflects the extent to which climate change and environment demand international cooperation, as well as how high these initiatives will figure in Canada’s foreign affairs agendas.
What does this all mean? It means that the new PM is drilling down into how the cabinet system will work and direct the complex and opaque operations of government. The publication of mandate laters in the next week or so will make it clear whether this new governance approach will include machinery changes. Stay tuned…