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The New Federal Cabinet: A View From Alberta

Cabinet making isn’t easy. A lot depends on the cards dealt to the Prime Minister by the people of Canada. It is also never done strictly based on merit. Prime Ministers from the time of Confederation have faced the challenge of creating a cabinet from their party’s MPs that reflects the linguistic, cultural, and regional dynamics of the country. In the past few decades, gender and ethnic balance have also become key priorities.

As the new cabinet was being sworn in at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, regional balance has never been more important, certainly in the eyes of voters on the prairies. The Liberals were elected without securing the majority of seats, meaning governing won’t be easy and will require brokering deals with other parties on an issue by issue basis.

To make the challenge even greater, the number of government MPs from the west from which to find Cabinet Ministers has shrunk significantly. The governing Liberals took a major hit in their seat count in Western Canada and were completely shut out of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Add to that the fact that over half (22 of 36) of their Cabinet represent Toronto (11), Montreal (7) and Metro Vancouver (4), and there is only one minister from the Prairie provinces.

Clearly there is unrest out west. Alberta has struggled through more than four years of low oil prices, a recessionary economy and a seemingly endless string of policy changes by the previous provincial government that made a bad situation a lot worse. Anger, frustration, even separatist sentiment has begun to boil up as voters feel alienated from the rest of Canada.

It is this challenging economic and political context that has made the job of building a new federal cabinet so much tougher this time around. So how did the Prime Minister do in trying to ensure Alberta and Saskatchewan are represented?

For starters, appointing Chrystia Freeland as both Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs appears to be an inspired choice.  Although Freeland represents a downtown Toronto riding, she was born and raised in Peace River, Alberta, a fact that will no doubt be pointed to time and again by the Liberal government.

More importantly, Freeland has demonstrated strong diplomatic skills during the tough and unpredictable trade negotiations with the Trump administration over the past few years. Those talents will serve her well in attempting to make peace with conservative premiers in Alberta and Saskatchewan, as well as communicating with the people of both provinces on the key issues of pipelines, carbon taxes, and climate change.

The appointment of Seamus O’Regan as Natural Resources Minister will be received out West with healthy doses of both openness and skepticism, with likely more focus on the latter. On one hand, O’Regan is an MP from Newfoundland and Labrador, another oil-producing province. On the other, consecutive Prime Ministers have ensured this key economic portfolio is represented by a minister from the west. That isn’t the case this time around.

O’Regan takes over from Winnipeg MP Jim Carr, who was named as Special Advisor for the Prairies, a position reporting to the Prime Minister and not officially part of the cabinet. Carr announced in October that he has cancer and his personal health is paramount above all else. Everyone hopes in light of his diagnosis he will be able to perform that important advisory role for the Prime Minister.

Jonathan Wilkinson was named as the new Environment Minister. Across much of the west, Wilkinson’s appointment will largely be seen as a much-needed change in a key Ministry that has enormous potential impact for the economy of Western Canada. However, even though Wilkinson has roots in Saskatchewan, he represents a riding in Vancouver. That may engender some suspicion in the prairies.

The cards the Prime Minister was left holding after the October election meant he had a huge gap out West and little room for maneuver. Ultimately, alongside Freeland and his new cabinet he needs to find a way to accommodate the concerns of western provinces in a meaningful way. It will require a lot of heavy lifting and bridge building. Let’s hope they are successful, because Canada’s future depends on it.

 

Richard Truscott is the Managing Principal in Alberta for Maple Leaf Strategies.

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