The Trudeau 2.0 Mandate Letters: Great Expectations?

4 minute read

By their own assessment, the Trudeau government fulfilled 219 out of a total of 289 mandate letter commitments in their first term, or roughly 75%. Other assessments, typically stemming from non-partisan civil society initiatives such as TrudeauMeter, estimate that the Trudeau government delivered on roughly 60% of their original commitments.

The mandate letters serve as a political tool as well as an instructional document for ministers. They give the Prime Minister an opportunity to demonstrate some of the government’s intentions in a highly publicized, positive manner. It is therefore both understandable and reasonable that many read these letters with skepticism. There is, however, arguably more to these letters than meets the eye. In addition to surface-level policy proposals, the letters hint at how the Government plans on utilizing public governance institutions to fulfill its campaign commitments and address shortcomings from its first mandate.

The overall tone of the letters makes it clear that the Trudeau Government wishes to pick up where it left off. Thus, Indigenous affairs, climate action, and concluding trade deals remain at the forefront and the economy continues as a steady engine, albeit with some acknowledgement that debt levels need to be recognized and managed.

That said, there are some notable changes. Perhaps the most significant is the new role of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, assigned to the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland. The 2019 election indicated that Canada is now deeply divided on a regional basis, and Freeland’s appointment hints at the perspective and approach that Trudeau wishes to take to address this problem. Managing intergovernmental affairs was a role that he assumed on his own during his first mandate and in assigning Freeland to it, he is effectively removing himself from the hot seat. Instead, one of his most capable ministers will be taking charge of this vital assignment, demonstrating Trudeau’s concerns on the interprovincial file.

The mandate letters also contain a rather extensive set of measures on parliamentary reform, including alterations to the committee structure and a reduction in vote-whipping. This is interesting because one of the most obvious shortcomings of the Trudeau Government’s first mandate was their failure to fulfill their promise on electoral reform, subsequently avoiding the subject altogether during the 2019 election cycle.

Parliamentary reform, however, is something like a “little brother” of electoral reform. It does not affect the method in which Members of Parliament are chosen, but it does redistribute the balance of power among elected officials, providing greater influence to backbench MPs and devolving power from the Cabinet and Prime Minister. Such alterations could address widespread concern that Parliament no longer functions in a productive and fair manner, concern that was perhaps exacerbated by events such as the SNC-Lavalin affair.

It is intriguing that these devolutions are being proposed in a minority situation because MPs that stray from their party line pose a significantly greater threat to a minority government than they do to a majority. However, if managed successfully, these measures would establish a more constructive and collaborative environment in Parliament, something that has been lacking in recent years.

An additional feature of the mandate letters is a number of proposed adjustments to the overall design and membership of Cabinet and the machinery of government. The Cabinet itself has revived the long-dormant Junior Finance Minister position, stylized as the Minister of Middle-Class Prosperity.

Meanwhile, new government entities such as the Canadian Centre for Peace, Order, and Good Government; Defence Procurement Canada; and the Canada Water Agency, are all set to be created in the upcoming mandate. All of these are designed to assist the Government in implementing its policies and overall vision on an ad hocbasis; whether a subsequent government maintains their existence will remain to be seen.

There are also some proposed modernization initiatives such as transitioning to a more digital government and creating a more efficient government procurement process. Unlike in 2015, however, there are no significant commitments made towards public service renewal beyond machinery changes and modernization projects. Extensive reform, as was proposed at the beginning of Trudeau’s first mandate, is noticeably absent.

Helpfully, these mandate letters provide a much clearer structure of accountabilities and authorities between ministers than they did in 2015. The original letters did not make clear how ministers were expected to manage horizontalities that existed with intersecting mandates, instead utilizing vague instructions such as “work with” a designated colleague.

Some who had seen the mandate letters of previous governments, including those under Stephen Harper, Paul Martin, and Jean Chretien, advised the IOG that Trudeau’s predecessors had generally established an obvious chain of command when decreeing a link between ministers. Individual ministers would receive clear orders to “lead, with the support of,” “provide consultation for,” or “work under,” their respective colleagues. This is an approach that Trudeau has returned to in his latest set of letters.

Ultimately, these letters address many concerns that are prevalent among Canadians. Whether evidenced by polarized elections; worrisome media reports; or protests related to a multitude of issues including climate change, Indigenous rights, and economic security, it is clear that society is anxious about where it stands and the direction in which it is headed. It is the role of the government to provide leadership in such times, and Trudeau still has much work to do to gain the country’s trust. Undoubtedly, Justin Trudeau and his government learned many lessons during their first four years in charge, and perhaps the mandate letters are a first indication of how they wish to alter their practices as a result.

About the author

Institute on Governance

Institute on Governance

Founded in 1990, the Institute on Governance (IOG) is an independent, Canada-based, not-for-profit public interest institution with its head office in Ottawa and an office in Toronto. Our mission is ‘advancing better governance in the public interest,’ which we accomplish by exploring, developing and promoting the principles, standards and practices which underlie good governance in the public sphere, both in Canada and abroad.

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