Trudeau’s cabinet choices have domino effect on House of Commons work
In a minority government, the jobs of government house leader, chief whip and committee chairs will be far more important than they were when Trudeau commanded a majority in the Commons
OTTAWA—As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau settles on his choices for his new cabinet this week, he’ll need to deny high-profile executive posts to some MPs in his government and ask them to take on the often unsung roles in the House of Commons that will be critical to keeping the Liberals in power and their agenda moving.
In a minority government, the jobs of government house leader, chief whip and committee chairs will be far more important than they were when Trudeau commanded a majority in the Commons.
Those roles are often filled after cabinet is chosen, but with a minority government, Trudeau must consider who will fill them at the same time, said Kevin Bosch, a vice president at Hill and Knowlton and a longtime Liberal staffer well versed with the ins and outs of how Parliament functions.
“There is skill in managing things in Parliament,” Bosch said.
“In the past, where you may have looked more at geography and other demographics, you better start by finding folks who you know can get the job done in a minority government.”
Trudeau has tried two different kinds of House leaders: an old hand, Dominic LeBlanc, who has been an MP since 2000, was the first one he chose in 2015. But he was shuffled after a rocky nine months of escalating tensions with the opposition parties. Next up was a relative rookie, Bardish Chagger, first elected in 2015 and who had long faced questions about her ability to function in French.
Both bilingualism and strong negotiating skills are essential in this minority situation, said Bosch.
The house leader’s task is to negotiate with other parties on how the Commons functions, which is paramount in a minority situation where being on top of those relationships can keep the government from being brought down. With the Bloc Quebecois having 32 seats in this Parliament, a fluently-bilingual house leader will also be a near imperative.
“If you have to do everything in translation, it’s hard to create a relationship, build the rapport that you might need to get things done across the aisle,” Bosch said.
The whip makes sure the MPs are there for the votes, and in a minority, every one of those is going to matter.
“You need someone who is skilled and diligent and isn’t guessing but is sure they have the numbers when they say they have the numbers,” he said.
Then there are the committees. For any piece of legislation to get passed in the 43rd Parliament, it first must pass through a committee where the government no longer has the upper hand.
Anthony Housefather, a Liberal MP who was the chair of the last justice committee, points out that in a majority situation, if the Opposition were proposing amendments to a bill, the majority on the committee didn’t need to listen.
Things are different now, he said. Amendments could easily turn into bargaining chips for getting a government bill passed and the chair’s role will mutate, he said.
“You’re going to need in a minority parliament to spend even more time to make sure that you have the support of at least some of the other parties and so there’s going to be a lot more discussion and seeking agreement when it comes to bills,” he said.
Former NDP MP Nathan Cullen, a veteran of the minority Parliaments of the Conservative years, he said he loved committee work during those times, calling it far more democratic and engaging.
“Power is inherently shared more and those that can negotiate best will have the most influence—not just those with the most members on a committee,” he said.
Under both the Conservative and Liberal majorities, Cullen points out, the government was able to shut down motions concerning ethical violations. In a minority situation, those types of investigations are in play, he suggested.
That’s something already on the Conservatives’ radar as they too seek to organize their front benches in response to the minority scenario.
During the election campaign, leader Andrew Scheer made much of the fact that efforts by Parliamentary committees to probe deeper into the SNC-Lavalin affair were thwarted by majority might.
During an interview with The Canadian Press right after the election, Scheer said the Opposition intends to use their increased power in this minority situation.
“I believe in parliament, I believe in the work of parliamentarians,” Scheer said.
“And what we saw in the previous government was a lot of things were just rubber stamped through committees. So we’re going to make sure we respect the results of the election, but at the same time understand that committees can play a very important role in a minority government.”