Emergency Dispatch: The Blair Switch Project
Yeah, terrible headline, we know. But you try coming up with something original.
Happy shuffle day, everyone! As promised, here’s our reaction. These are understandably fast, and we have some unanswered questions ourselves, but here’s what we’re confident saying so far.
First: This is a bigger shuffle than we’d expected, and we’re seeing some predictably overwrought reactions to it. Can your Line editors please, for like the billionth time, just ask everyone to not rush to the most strident, dumbest possible position, and instead just try and be measured here? That includes critics of the government, who are rushing to portray the shuffle as a sign of panic and imminent Liberal electoral oblivion, but also supporters of the government, who are now at war with Eurasia and insist that this cabinet is the absolute best cabinet Canada has ever seen, just like they thought the cabinet we had yesterday was also the best-cabinet ever.
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The truth, near as we can tell, is close to this: the size of the shuffle is indeed quite large, but a lot of the moves were forced by long-serving members deciding to step aside from federal politics, and there is nothing remarkable about that. Some of them were into their 70s, and this government has been in power almost eight years. Some turnover is natural, and tells us little or nothing about panic and doom. On the flipside, though, we roll our eyes at those Liberal supporters who are unable or unwilling to admit, maybe even only to themselves, that this government has been adrift for over a year, prone to missteps and unforced errors, and that some corrective action was not just necessary, but long overdue.
Was that so hard?
Second: While your Line editors are far from declaring the Liberals dead and doomed, we do continue to detect at least a whiff of death hanging about them. We first went on record here over a year ago with our suspicions that they’d tipped over and were past the point of no return. We’ve nervously kept that prediction in mind ever since, because betting against Justin Trudeau hasn’t worked out for a lot of people who risked doing it before us, and, frankly, the more we’ve seen from the Conservatives over the last year, the more convinced we become in their ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
But let’s just boil this down to first principles here. As much as this enrages and confuses Liberal supporters, the CPC has been beating them consistently in the polls for a long time now. The Liberals have declined to a point where they seem to have a ceiling in the low-thirties. That might be just enough to get them another minority, if they catch all the breaks. But their vaunted “vote efficiency” is a double-edged sword. It’s as easy to lose in dozens of ridings by tiny vote margins as it is to win those same ridings with equally tiny margins, as they did in 2021, and the LPC’s trajectory seems down, not up.
They can turn this around, but we’ve yet to see anything that suggests that they have or are starting to. We also don’t see much in today’s shuffle that tells us that’s changing. As we noted in our last dispatch here, contrary to what many Liberals seem to think, their biggest problem isn’t communications. It’s execution. And near as we can tell, the two biggest problems on that front are the double-whammy of a bureaucracy that has completely ossified and a PMO that has has way, way too few people overseeing way, way too many policy files. The result? Gridlock.
From where we sit, though the last cabinet had some real duds (more on that in a minute), the main problem for this government wasn’t said duds. Swapping in some new people and moving a few others around hasn’t fixed the real problems.
Of course it hasn’t. It can’t.
Third: Moving on from not fixing problems to creating new ones, The Line would like to register its immediate and strong objections to Public Safety now being led by Dominic LeBlanc. It’s not that we object to LeBlanc himself — he’s among Trudeau’s better ministers. But LeBlanc is also remaining as Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs. And that’s … insane.
We’ll have words in a moment about the departing public safety minister, but perhaps the only thing that anyone ever said in Marco Mendicino’s defence that made any sense to us was that Public Safety is a nightmare portfolio. It’s too big, with responsibility over too much stuff. Just consider the three clusterfucks that arguably combined to bring Mendicino down: there was the gun-banning fiasco, the China electoral interference revelations and the Paul Bernardo prisoner transfer. Our point isn’t that we want to re-litigate all those things, but simply to note that none of them, all of them important in their own right, have anything to do with each other. And yet all are still under the roof of a single ministry.
Public Safety is too big. It’s doing too much. And now LeBlanc is taking it on as a side-gig.
To our Liberal friends, we’re telling you this straight up, on day one and as plainly as we can: Public Safety is too important, both to the lives of Canadians and likely your own electoral prospects, for this arrangement to work. Even half of LeBlanc might be an upgrade over a full Mendicino, but you’re playing with political fire by treating such a massive, complicated and vital ministry as a part-time job. Worse? You’re playing with the lives and safety of Canadians. We urge you guys to really, really carefully mull this one over a bit.
Fourth: We guess this is about as good a time as any to bid farewell to the above-mentioned Mendicino. We have written so much about him in recent months as he’s careened from one disaster to another that, now that he has finally and inevitably been dumped back into his deserved political obscurity, we don’t really know what to add.
This may surprise you, actually, but some of what we feel is relief — for him. The Line tries not to take politics personally. We have heard good things about Marco Mendicino the man — the friend, the husband, the father. We have no trouble believing those things.
But, gosh, guys.
It has been absolutely excruciating waiting for his inevitable demotion, and though he may find this hard to believe, we say that in least in part because we felt sorry for the guy. The entire thing has reminded us of an old Kids in the Hall sketch where a man is savagely beaten by a much bigger man in a bar brawl that he provoked, but instead of taking the bruising and learning a lesson, keeps getting up for more, until even his opponent is begging him to stay down. He didn’t, and the PM left him to twist for a few months before finally doing the right thing and ending this embarrassment.
As for what brought Mendicino here, as noted above, Public Safety is a tough gig, but he also seemed particularly unsuited to it. The Line first wrote extensively about Mendicino in June of last year, and noted even then his sloppiness and, to be blunt, his habitual lying. The old column makes for interesting reading today. Everything that would bring Mendicino down and get his government into so much trouble along the way was obvious then. A lot of this could have been avoided. Oh well.
Fifth: In what is probably the greatest insult a Canadian government has given the Canadian Armed Forces since the Ross Rifle, Bill Blair is now the Minister of National Defence. It's hard to underscore exactly how bad an idea this is. Blair's term at Public Safety — there’s that damned ministry again, eh? — ranged from dragging his heels on calling a public inquiry into the Portapique massacre in Nova Scotia, to overseeing a largely failed attempt to shift RCMP culture, to being the minister who first received intelligence that China was targeting MPs with foreign interference operations and didn’t do anything about it.
And now he's in charge of the federal government's single largest, and most complex, bureaucracy.
Blair has served a useful political role for the Liberals before. In the last election, he was the guy right next to the prime minister as he stood behind a podium with the silhouette of an AR-15 on it. He's a cop straight out of central casting, used to playing defence on some of the government's thorniest files. But, like, maybe there's a reason the government is always doing heavy issues management on Bill Blair's files?
If only there had been some indication from some other previous high-profile event he had a leadership role in that this is what Blair would be like as a minister.
One thing that his appointment does confirm, though, is that this government has gone back to the Ottawa baseline level of interest in national defence: zero. Anyone who thought that the war in Ukraine would herald a new shift in Canadian thinking on defence and national security, and that maybe we would act in a way that would cause our allies to take us more seriously, is going to find Canada once again at the back of the NATO classroom hoping the teacher doesn't call on them.
Sixth: Marc Miller, newly minted minister of immigration, has found his role in this government. He's the guy in charge of doing the thankless jobs now. Or, to put it more accurately, he's the guy in charge of making sure small(ish) problems don't become totally debilitating for the government.
This used to be Chrystia Freeland's job. But, Freeland is now too senior to be utilized that way.
The government has tried, at various points, making this Seamus O'Regan's job, or Marco Mendicino's job and ... well ...
So, it's Marc Miller's turn. It's worth noting that in his previous roles as the Minister for Indigenous Services and, later, for Crown-Indigenous Relations, rights holder organizations such as the AFN and others had high praise for him. Few of the government's major missteps have focused on Miller and he has generally kept his files quiet.
But now, he has hundreds of refugees sleeping on the streets of major Canadian cities, a significant backlog in international student visas, and polling is showing that immigration is slowly creeping up the list of priority issues for Canadians.
Miller's new job won't get as much notice as some of the changes Wednesday, but if he can't follow through on his reputation for quiet competence (a trait in short supply in TrudeauLand), it will open up an entirely new political weak spot for the government. Good luck!
Seventh: Justin Trudeau is far from the only kid from Ontario to move to Quebec in his teen years and make a play at becoming plus Québécois que les Québécois. But while most of these ROC expats satisfy themselves with living on the Plateau, sending their kids to school in French, and crapping all over Toronto at every opportunity, in his time as prime minister Trudeau has repeatedly gone out of his way to court the francophone vote by sticking it to the province’s anglos. These efforts culminated in the passing last month of Bill C13, a revamp of the federal official languages act that made kind references to Quebec’s Bill 101.
Trudeau’s overhaul of his cabinet today won’t do much to dispel the suspicion that he has his eyes firmly focused on the francophone vote, and that he believes the path to success there is paved with contempt for Quebec anglophones.
Let’s begin with the new Heritage minister, Pascal St. Onge (Brome—Missisquoi), who is the fifth person to hold that portfolio for the Trudeau Liberals. She’s also the fifth Quebecer, and the fifth francophone. Obviously, it is Justin Trudeau’s position that the federal heritage department exists solely to be run by, and for, Quebec francophones, with the singular purpose of outbidding Quebec City for the hearts and minds of Quebec francophones. While we don’t deny that that is an important part of the department’s mandate, Trudeau’s obsession with this aspect of it strikes us as, well, obsessive and bad for the country.
But more surprising still is the dropping of erstwhile justice minister David Lametti (LaSalle—Émard—Verdun) from cabinet. We have never been big fans of Lametti here at The Line, because he seems to have poor judgment on things that his job requires that he have good judgment. But by the same token, his poor judgment also struck us as breaking poorly but in a direction that would appeal to his boss. Which is to say, we think he was a bad minister of precisely the sort that Trudeau would think was good.
So while it’s not clear to us what Lametti did to get punted right out of the executive, we’d like to think that maybe it’s because he was a bit squeaky on the sticking-it-to-Quebec-anglos file. Regardless, with Lametti gone, and Marc Garneau’s replacement Anna Gainey (Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Westmount) not getting the quick boost into cabinet that was widely expected, that leaves Marc Miller (Ville-Marie—Le Sud-Ouest—Île-des-Sœurs), late of Indigenous Services, now of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, as the only Quebec anglophone in cabinet.
At the very least, this suggests that Trudeau believes he can take the support of Quebec anglos for granted. But when you combine this courting of Quebec francophones in a cabinet that also offers a clear raised middle finger to Alberta, and it’s pretty clear what Trudeau has in mind for the next election. And as people who care about national unity, and worry about how reckless and cavalier Trudeau has been on this front, we don’t like it one bit.
Eighth: We did raise an eyebrow at moving Anita Anand out of Defence, where her tenure had been well reviewed and did see some progress, finally, on long overdue procurements. With Canada recently having pledged to expand our force in Latvia to a full brigade — not a huge commitment for a G-7 country of 40 million people in theory, but awfully big for this particular country in reality — we had thought that she might stay at Defence until urgently needed reforms and purchases were further along.
But no. Why?
There’s an interesting possible answer: with Chrystia Freeland remaining at Finance and Anand going to the Treasury Board, Trudeau has arguably put two of his very best ministers, proven troubleshooters, into key economic roles. That’s probably laudable, and also tells us interesting things about what Trudeau and his team assess as being their greatest external threat. It’s not war anymore. It’s paying the bills.
So that’s something to ponder. But there’s another cynical possibility: we’ve been hearing rumbles for months about Anand’s leadership ambitions — these rumbles have occasionally broken out into public view. At Treasury, Anand will have an important job, to be sure, but will be largely out of sight while doing it. No more flying across the world to hang out with military commanders, senior NATO officials and partaking in the best possible photo-ops for an aspiring leader: those with big fleets of lethal military hardware and row upon row of troops in the background. Now she’ll spend her time in Ottawa telling her colleagues “No,” when they ask for more money to execute their assignments.
Like we said, it’s cynical. Doesn’t mean it’s not true, though. Again, something. to ponder.
A few other little morsels:
Jonathan Wilkinson retains his Natural Resources portfolio, but his title has changed to specifically mention Energy. This was always included within Natural Resources, but the decision to call it out could signal a desire by the Trudeau government to communicate about energy politics differently. For years, the Liberal energy policy has been focused on GHG reductions and phasing out the oil sands. But with Ontario’s recent announcements of major investments into expanding nuclear production, the federal Liberals might be signalling their plan to finally reframe the energy conversation.
More nuance — Seamus O’Regan is now the Minister of Labour and Seniors. He’s been the Minister of Labour since 2021, but the addition of Seniors has us wondering if the federal Liberals are planning to change regulations to incentivize seniors to keep working. There is a major shortage of skilled labour and experienced workers. And many seniors cannot afford to retire. Might O’Regan’s new role signal the government’s intention to allow seniors to collect Old Age Security while continuing to work part-time beyond the current clawback exemption of just over $80,000? That would be an interesting look for a government that lowered the CPP retirement age back to 65 soon after being elected in 2015.
And lastly, what’s Pierre Poilievre going to do next? At The Line, we get that most Canadians couldn’t name a “shadow minister” or critic. But how Poilievre shuffles his shadow cabinet matters because how his team litigates the work of cabinet is often how Canadians learn about boondoggles. Raquel Dancho’s impressive work on firearms and scrutinizing Marco Mendocino on a daily basis in her entirely respectable manner is a great example. How Poilievre chooses to contrast key ministers with his own bench will be important, and he has some newly elected MPs like Shuv Majumdar and Arpan Khanna, who we can expect to see take on new roles to showcase the CPC as a strong alternative.
That’s it! For now. We’ll probably think of more stuff later — we’re still trying to wrap our minds around what this all means for C-18 and the new Heritage minister — but that can wait. Take care, Line readers, and congrats to any among you with new cabinet gigs.
Update: We’ve filled in a bit more detail re: OAS clawbacks to note that the limit is already set just over $80,000.
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