Rahim Mohamed: Anita Anand, pain sponge
Our former defence minister finds herself holding a mop and bucket now that the cheap credit-fuelled party is definitively over.
By: Rahim Mohamed
In a memorable scene from the series finale of HBO’s Succession, eccentric Swedish tech billionaire Lukas Mattson tells corporate stooge Tom Wambsgans that he needs a “pain sponge” to be the American CEO of media conglomerate Waystar Royco.
“I’m not looking for a partner,” Mattson tells Tom as he nods along obsequiously. “I’m looking for a front man. Because we’re gonna cut shit close to the bone.”
“It’s going to get nasty,” Mattson warns a still undeterred Tom.
It’s not hard to imagine a similar conversation taking place between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and standout cabinet minister Anita Anand as the latter was given her marching orders for her new role as president of the Treasury Board.
Anand’s transfer from the glitzy Defence portfolio to the rather pedestrian Treasury Board last month left many pundits scratching their heads (myself among them). Some speculated, at the time, that she’d been demoted for being too overt about her aspirations to succeed Trudeau as Liberal party leader.
But the rationale behind the move became clear last week, when it was revealed that Anand had circulated a letter to her cabinet colleagues informing them that they had less than two months to find more than $15 billion in cuts to existing programs. (The cuts are set to take place incrementally over the next five years). “I am seeking your support to develop proposals to achieve these targets,” read the letter.
The letter indicates that, after an eight-year orgy of spending, the Trudeau government is finally getting around to some long-overdue belt tightening. It also means that Anand is set to be the face of this painful and thankless enterprise: Trudeau’s very own “pain sponge,” if you will.
The plan has already drawn pushback from Canada’s public-sector unions. Chris Aylward, the head of Canada’s largest union of federal employees, complained that he was blindsided by the news about Anand’s letter to cabinet, calling on the government to “pause the cuts” in lieu of formal consultations with public-sector workers. Aylward’s sentiments were echoed by Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada president Jennifer Carr, who demanded her union have a “seat at the table.”
With labour strife on the rise amidst high inflation, this rhetoric is likely to escalate as the spending cuts progress. Further job action isn’t out of the question if Anand cuts too close to the bone. (Thus far, the official line from the Treasury Board is that the cuts are “unlikely” to result in additional job losses.)
Anand, a relative newcomer to the Team Trudeau (she was first elected in 2019), had little to do with the spending decisions that put the federal government in this unenviable fiscal position. In fact, she was largely unsuccessful in her attempts to convince the Treasury Board to loosen the purse strings during her time as defence minister. She nevertheless finds herself holding a mop and bucket now that the cheap credit-fuelled party is definitively over.
This doesn’t necessarily spell the end of Anand’s political rise. She could, in fact, end up bolstering her bonafides with fiscally conservative Blue Liberals if she can pull off the spending cuts with minimal blowback. (Former prime minister Paul Martin became the darling of this crowd after cleaning up the federal balance sheet in the 1990s.)
Even if Anand’s new gig comes with potential political upside, few of her colleagues in cabinet would willingly trade places with her. It’s a hard job — not necessarily a (political) suicide mission, but certainly a challenge, even for one of Trudeau’s better ministers.
The 57-year-old Anita Anand has worn a number of titles over her distinguished career: counsellor, professor, minister. She will now be able to add “pain sponge” to this list. Time will tell whether any other ones of note await her in the future.
Rahim Mohamed is a master’s student at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy. His writing has appeared in The Hub, and the National Post, and CBC News Calgary.
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