With the cabinet shuffle, Trudeau fires first salvo of next election campaign

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If the ballot question is the economy, the prime minister stands a fighting chance of re-election. If the question remains a need for change, his bold cabinet move won’t mean much.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on July 31, 2023.

OTTAWA—Justin Trudeau has rolled the dice.

Last week’s massive cabinet shuffle makes one thing certain: the prime minister plans to lead the Liberal Party into the next election.

The ballot question he is aiming for is the economy, and Trudeau is banking on enough political runway to convince Canadians that the best masters of the economy are already in the job.

The shuffle is a not-so-tacit admission that Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is hitting the mark when he travels the country on his so-called “Axe the Tax” tour.

It matters little that the majority of Canadians are actually getting money back because of the way the carbon tax remittance has been structured. Canadians are reeling from rising prices and the hike in national interest rates. Global issues may be responsible for the cash crunch, as Trudeau mentioned during his press conference lauding the new cabinet team. But all politics is local.

Polls show that local politics right now is hitting the Liberals hard. On the same day as Trudeau announced the massive change in cabinet, Abacus Data released a poll showing the Conservatives were 10 points ahead of the Liberals. Pollara put out a poll earlier in the month claiming the Tories were 12 points ahead among Indigenous voters.

Trendlines are clear. Tories are climbing and the Liberals are lagging. The shuffle is supposed to staunch the political bloodletting.

Highlights included the appointment of Arif Virani, Canada’s first Muslim attorney general and Rechi Valdez the first Filipina woman in a Canadian cabinet. Original reports cited the appointment of a first Filipino, but that was amended, as the first Filipino member of cabinet was Rey Pagtakhan in the cabinet of Jean Chrétien.

The demographic changes to cabinet are pretty clear evidence that the shuffle is intended to launch an election team. As well as specific nominations in the Muslim and Filipino community, the prime minister also named a Tamil Canadian as minister responsible for Crown-Indigenous relations.

Gary Anandasangaree will have big shoes to fill because outgoing minister Marc Miller developed an excellent relationship with Indigenous communities, as both portfolios he has held in the past eight years involved work with those communities. Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu has regional experience with Indigenous peoples because of her home riding in Thunder Bay-Superior North, Ont.

Anandasangaree is a risky choice because his urban Scarborough background is not exactly a hotbed of Indigenous politics. However, he has a reputation as being accessible and active, and worked on an Indigenous consultation process for the Rouge National Urban Park.

He wouldn’t be the first minister to build a relationship with Indigenous peoples from scratch. But the popularity of Miller and Hajdu were undeniable, and, given the government’s commitment to reconciliation, the decision to make a change is potentially tricky.

The Trudeau inner circle of cabinet makers must be banking on the fact that these new appointments will buttress the party in areas of the country where they will be in pitched battles with the Conservatives. Suburban GTA ridings are always a dogfight, so the appointments of Anandasangaree and Valdez could have an impact on potentially tight races.

Trudeau is also trying to change the “change” message. With three terms under his belt, the prime minister is well known to the public and somewhat shopworn.

As my mother taught me, politics is the only job where the more experience you get, the more people want to get rid of you, and in three terms, you make enemies who want you out.

The change narrative is the movement when governments are voted out. It doesn’t matter what kind of a job they have done; their political time is up. In most instances, people vote governments out, they do not vote opposition parties in.

A new government is given the benefit of the doubt. The thinking is, with this sizeable change in positions, there is an element of newness surrounding the team. While that is true, there is no element of newness in the leader.

Trudeau is obviously banking on the fact the surly side of the Conservative leader will convince enough voters that Poilievre is not the right person to lead the country. While Trudeau may no longer be loved by all, his opponent has never been loved by many.

If the ballot question is the economy, the prime minister stands a fighting chance of re-election. If the question remains a need for change, his bold cabinet move won’t mean much at the ballot box.

This past week, the next election got started.

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