Cabinet changes in both countries speak louder than words

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Justin Trudeau will make sure he is not caught in the crossfire in potential trade disputes. He has nothing to gain by accenting Yankee-Canuck differences.


Published on Monday, January 16, 2017 in The Hill Times.

OTTAWA—The new year cabinet changes in Canada and the United States are a keen study in just how different our two countries really are.

With the departure of Stéphane Dion and John McCallum, the face of the Liberal government is even younger and more diverse.

Dion and McCallum had decades of experience in government. Their departures deplete the experiential depth and breadth of the cabinet.

Most ministers don’t only manage their own departments and responsibilities. They may weigh in on major national issues, which impact on the government and the whole country.
Prime minister Jean Chrétien’s decision not to join the war on Iraq, was seen as seminal. Chrétien’s four decades in Parliament played a role in that decision, but he also consulted multiple cabinet members, especially those with lengthy political experience.

Youth has the benefit of energy and drive, but with age comes wisdom. History often repeats itself, which is why some wizened faces in cabinet are a good thing.

The deeper Trudeau goes into his mandate, the more he will need to count on colleagues with experience to weather difficult storms.

The youthfulness of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself has been key in attracting a whole new generation of engaged young people. His commitment on issues like marijuana managed to engage a new generation, one that previously had no interest in government.

That intergenerational change has served the Liberals well but it also has limitations.

Maryam Monsef came to cabinet with high expectations but had no political experience. She inherited a treacherous portfolio which could have used a veteran’s touch. Her successor is also a newbie. Karina Gould has impressive international organizational experience which could be a useful training ground for this tricky portfolio.

In his first wave of American appointments, the cabinet of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump is getting older and whiter.

Neither change should surprise us. Politicians promote those with whom they feel the closest connection.

Young leaders generally encourage younger faces, while older leaders can be more comfortable with those of their own age, gender, and race.

Women often support other women. Leaders hailing from minority communities work hard to recruit those from diverse cultures and races. U.S. President Barack Obama’s cabinet was a reflection of his own personal life experience.

Hillary Clinton surrounded herself with strong women and her team reflected a real gender change that, had she won, would have radically changed the face of the American administration.

Trump is a white, 70-year-old business man. It should surprise no one that most of those whom he has elevated to his cabinet are white businessmen.

For those Americans witnessing the changing face of Washington, it must be tough to see so few minority appointees at the table. It is as though the last 30 years of civil rights progress has been erased and Jim Crow is back to rule the roost.

The visible lack of diversity is one thing. Even more troubling is the fact that some cabinet viewpoints are a real throwback to America’s racist past.

Trump’s choice for attorney general is so polarizing that he is being publicly opposed by the Congressional Black Caucus.

Seventy-year-old Senator Jeff Sessions voted against hate crimes legislation, and publicly questioned whether women, gays, lesbians and transgendered even face discrimination.

Thirty years ago, an attempt by then president Ronald Reagan to make Sessions a district court judge was rejected by a Republican-dominated Senate committee.

Apparently, this brand of conservatism is more palatable today than it was in the eighties.

By most accounts, Senator Sessions has not changed.

But America has. The deep racial divide reinforced by this appointment is a glaring example of the growing differences between Canada and the United States.

It is easy to understand the frustration of civil rights activists and feminists confronted with a proposed cabinet appointment that is so controversial. How can the attorney general be trusted to promote human rights and protect the judicial gains for women and minorities if he does not believe in them himself?

New Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland will, no doubt, make the case in Washington that Canada continues as the best friend and neighbour of the United States. She will be smart enough to avoid making a gratuitous enemy of President Trump.

Trudeau will make sure he is not caught in the crossfire in potential trade disputes.

Canadian jobs are too dependent on our interconnectedness. Trudeau has nothing to gain by accenting Yankee-Canuck differences.

But last week’s cabinet changes in both countries speak louder than words.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era Cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.