January 11, 2019 12:17 pm
Updated: January 13, 2019 8:34 pm

NOTEBOOK: An obligatory cabinet shuffle speculation post — Could McKenna move?

WATCH: Liberals prepare to shuffle cabinet

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As a card-carrying member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery’s pundit class, I am contractually obligated to engage in some cabinet shuffle speculation, now that Nova Scotia veteran MP Scott Brison has announced his intention to quit his post as president of the Treasury Board.

Trudeau will announce what he described Thursday as “changes” — see that? plural! — on Monday.

Until then, Ottawa will play its most favourite of games: Figuring out who might be on the rise or who might be getting a new job and what all of that will mean. This game is not for the faint of heart. You must have an irrational and possibly obsessive interest in the politics of the nation’s capital.

Consider yourself warned.

WATCH: Longtime MP Scott Brison quits politics days before Trudeau cabinet


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We start with two basic parameters, one which has guided all prime ministers since Confederation and another which is new to the Trudeau administration. The old parameter: where possible, a prime minister will include at least one cabinet member from each province. The Trudeau parameter: The cabinet will have an equal number of men and women (not counting the prime minister).

Now Trudeau could likely get away with a violation to that second parameter — gender parity in cabinet — by having more women than men cabinet. If he wants to do that and honour the first parameter, then the only option is to promote Bernadette Jordan into cabinet as she is only female MP from Nova Scotia and Brison is/was the only cabinet minister from that province.

READ MORE: Treasury Board President Scott Brison announces resignation

Jordan, who represents the riding of South Shore-St. Margarets, has impressed the brain trust in the PMO enough that she was, last summer, elevated to the position of parliamentary secretary, albeit to the minister for democratic institutions, a relatively minor portfolio.

There are, you may be surprised to learn, three other parliamentary secretarys from Nova Scotia: Sean Fraser, who comes from Peter MacKay’s old riding of Central Nova; Andy Fillmore, who in 2015 defeated the popular NDP MP Megan Leslie in the riding of Halifax; and the Cape Breton veteran Rodger Cuzner.

If you’re looking for an old Ottawa hand to take over at Treasury Board — where knowledge of government employee unions, government process, and structure is helpful — Cuzner would be an easy, uncomplicated fit.

And while there is no question that Cuzner could take on such a cabinet role, at 63, he seems to be a bit older for an administration that tends to want to pick younger candidates where possible. Fraser is just 34 and Fillmore is 52. Also, if Cuzner was elevated to cabinet now and Trudeau won re-election this fall, you could hardly expect Trudeau then to demote Cuzner, which means Cuzner would then take a valuable spot in a cabinet that might otherwise go to what the Trudeau administration seems to generally favour: the next generation. (It’s exceedingly rare, FYI, for Nova Scotia to be allocated more than one cabinet spot in any prime minister’s cabinet.)

Still, that might be the easiest shuffle: Cuzner for Brison. One for one and you’re done.

WATCH: Scott Brison explains why he’s leaving politics at the age of 51

Now, that’s not to say that Jordan, Fraser, or Fillmore would not be able to step in at Treasury Board but the general view might be that there are other, better landing spots for a first-time minister.

But those other landing spots are already occupied. So whom do you move? Here’s a bold idea floated by some in Ottawa engaging in speculation gossip in the last 24 hours: move Environment Minister Catherine McKenna to Treasury Board and then move the Nova Scotia backbencher into environment.

This move, it could be plausibly argued, would be a promotion for McKenna. Though the Treasury Board President is a cabinet slot that has little high profile with the public, it is central to the decision-making process across government. On top of that, only two other women have ever been Treasury Board President since the position was first created in Lester B. Pearson’s cabinet of 1966. They were Pat Carney in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet of 1988 and Lucienne Robillard in Jean Chretien’s cabinet of 1999.

Plus, McKenna is an Ottawa MP and the Treasury Board President is the most Ottawa-ish of all cabinet jobs. And if she took on that role, she’d be in her own riding of Ottawa Centre where she may need to campaign hard to hold on to what was an NDP seat before she won in 2015 and what currently is an NDP seat provincially.

And for the government, moving McKenna and inserting, say, Fraser — who, right now is McKenna’s parliamentary secretary — would put a fresh face on the government’s climate change agenda. Though McKenna has capably advanced her files, there are those in Ottawa, Liberals even, who think she has gone as far as she can trying to reach so-called “persuadable” voters who are on the fence about climate change and carbon taxes. Under this view, there may be more downside than upside in keeping her in the environment portfolio. Critics of her communication style complain that it can sometimes veer too close to condescension when she takes on opponents of her government’s agenda.

But if McKenna was moved, there certainly would be those who would interpret that move as an admission that she did not get the job done or, perhaps worse, that the government’s climate change agenda was flawed.

WATCH: McKenna calls Ontario’s cancelled climate change programs ‘a setback’ for Canada

Now there’s another move that would be less bold and still give that first-time backbench MP from Nova Scotia a slightly easier landing spot. That is to move Labour Minister Patty Hajdu of Thunder Bay, Ont., to Treasury Board and bring the backbencher to Labour. Hajdu has impressed the PMO brain trust enough that she has been promoted once already, from Status of Women to Labour. And there are lobbyists and others in Ottawa who deal with the government regularly who speak well of Hajdu’s competence and ability to get things done.

Jane Philpott, the Markham-Stouffville MP who is Minister of Indigenous Services right now, has that same reputation and would be an excellent choice at Treasury Board, but handing Philpott’s job to a first-time minister might be a bit risky. Still, it could go to Fillmore of Halifax, who got an in-depth look at the file when he served as chair of the Commons’ Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs. Personally, I think Philpott is too valuable where she is and ought to stay put.

WATCH: Scott Brison reflects on coming out and how the Charter of Rights and Freedoms made that possible

It’s hard to imagine many other cabinet ministers moving to Treasury Board. Either it would be seen as a demotion for parliamentary veterans like Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale or Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains. Or, as with Border Security Minister Bill Blair or Small Business Minister Mary Ng, they were just shuffled to where they are last July. Still, others may not have the aptitude or skill set for Treasury Board.

So if I had to place a bet, I’d go with Hajdu to Treasury Board and Fraser to labour. And that would be it. A micro-shuffle.

Now that I’ve made that prediction, an important warning: Contractually Obligated Cabinet Speculation Punditry should be taken with a huge grain of salt, as it is often wrong, and only the PM knows for sure who will be moved. He’ll settle this parlour game Monday.

David Akin covers Canadian federal and electoral politics and is currently Chief Political Correspondent for Global News.

Editor’s note: The original version of this article stated that only other woman has ever been Treasury Board President. This article has been corrected to note the two women have held that position.

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