There are any number of reasons why a prime minister decides to shake up his cabinet. Some are political while others may be more practical, and experts suggest the mid-winter shuffle initiated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday afternoon probably included a bit of both.
Most noteworthy were the changes to foreign affairs and international trade, both of which will now have a new minister steering the departments through potentially choppy waters ahead.
In the current context, said Queen’s University professor Kathy Brock, the imminent inauguration of Donald Trump as America’s 45th president probably led Trudeau to re-evaluate who was representing Canada abroad.
“He has to prepare his government to deal with the new American government coming in,” said Brock, who teaches in both the department of Political Studies and the School of Policy Studies.
“The people he’s chosen seem to be better prepared to speak to that government and the new climate that’s going to be in Washington as of Jan. 20.”
Trump’s protectionist approach to trade, his taxation and employment policies and his planned infrastructure spending could all affect Canada.
The incoming foreign affairs minister, Chrystia Freeland, will replace Stephane Dion and has extensive contacts in the United States. Her personality is reported to be more in line with some of Trump’s top staffers.
Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, says the shuffle was triggered by Freeland’s change of role, and with an eye on the importance of the bilateral relationship with the U.S.
“Canada has always had to pay attention to the United States, but now more than ever,” he said.
“Freeland is a familiar face in the U.S. She lived there, has been on TV, and her native language is English.”
Veteran international businessman (but rookie MP) François-Philippe Champagne will take over Freeland’s former post as trade minister.
Government representatives, including top Trudeau aides Gerald Butts and Katie Telford, have also reportedly been spending time in Washington meeting with Trump’s team in preparation for the handover of power.
Tuesday’s shuffle comes about 14 months after the original Liberal cabinet was sworn in.
Since November 2015, the prime minister has had to contend with a series of cabinet issues and blunders, including expenses scandals linked to several top ministers, questions surrounding the birthplace of former democratic institutions minister Maryam Monsef, and the resignation of former fisheries minister Hunter Tootoo.
“(Trudeau) has been looking at a shake-up for some of the ministers for a bit of time,” Brock noted.
“It was rumoured that he was considering it for the fall, so now it makes sense. It gives the government a fresh look in the new year.”
The shuffle also makes it appear that the government is listening to Canadians and to the pundits who criticized the performance of various ministers in 2016, she added, and it handily deflects attention from recent headlines linked to Trudeau himself.
The prime minster most recently came under fire for vacationing on a private island owned by the Aga Khan, whose development network has received hundreds of millions of dollars from the Canadian government.
“This is a really nice way to deflect attention away from the prime minister onto his cabinet minister in a positive way,” Brock noted.
“This is something that we often see happen with cabinet shuffles.”
The new cabinet will have a chance to find its feet during a retreat in Alberta set for the end of January.
With files from Amy Minsky.