Rise of the Rookies: Trudeau’s Grand Experiment

Everyone will be talking about American politics today. However, Iowa is just the first step in the race for the Presidency, and its darlings are often eclipsed by candidates with stronger showings down the road. I don’t have much to say about it. Instead I would like to comment on a different electoral victory. As it is already happened I can skip most of the guesswork you will read in the Iowan hot-takes. I speak of the Justin Trudeau’s sweep to power several months ago. Looking back on it now I realize many people commenting then missed one of the most significant things about Mr. Trudeau’s new program for Canadian politics. 

When Justin Trudeau announced his new cabinet back in November, his declaration set progressive media outlets across the English speaking world ablaze. Most of the attention focused on Trudeau’s decision to make his cabinet gender balanced, but ample praise has been found for the cabinet’s ethnic diversity as well. This tweet gives you a flavor of the coverage, condensed into a meme-friendly form:

People seem to like my analysis of the new Canadian Cabinet Ministers. Feel free to share. #canadianeh
Posted by Alana Phillips on Wednesday, November 4, 2015

All of this is history for the record books. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of governing I suspect that the most remarkable things about Trudeau’s cabinet will not be the gender, race, or religion of its members, but their newness. When Trudeau chose his cabinet in November he selected a cabinet of greenhorns.

Eighteen of Trudeau’s thirty cabinet members are first-time MPs. Only six (Ralph Goodale, Stéphane Dion, Scott Brison, Carolyn Bennett, John McCallum, and Lawrence MacAulay) have previous minister experience. While Stéphane Dion has been assigned to serve as Minister of Foreign Affairs, the other weighty assignments have gone to parliamentary neophytes: Bill Morneu as Minister of Finance, Harjit Sajjan as Minister of Defense, and Jody Wilson-Raybould as Minister of Justice.

When analyzing Ottawa politics one needs to be careful not to get too caught up in Cabinet choices. Many Cabinet positions are relatively inconsequential. The true levers of power are not found in general meetings of the Cabinet, but in the work of the main Cabinet Committees. It is entirely possible to pick a Cabinet that looks pretty in the public eye while reserving more serious committee assignments for a less sexy set of party power brokers. I was surprised to find that in Trudeau’s case this has not been true. The composition of Trudeau’s committees does match that of his Cabinet. This includes the political experience of those selected. The most important of Trudeau’s committees is the Committee on Agenda and Results (Trudeau’s version of the Priorities and Planning Committee, sometimes called the “inner cabinet”). Of its eleven members, six are first time MPs. The Committee of Intelligence and Emergency Management is the only other committee chaired by Trudeau himself. Two of its eight members are fresh MPs, and one of them, Jody Wilson-Raybould, is the Vice-Chair. Wilson-Raybould seems to be the workhouse of the new administration, Trudeau’s woman in the trenches: she sits on six committees, and is Vice-Chair of two of them. This includes the Committee and Canada in the World and Public Security. Six of its ten members are first time MPs.

You can play this game with all of the committees. The end result is clear: Trudeau has put political neophytes in key positions across the government, including foreign relations and military affairs. To put it frankly, this is a bold experiment that takes Anglophone politics into uncharted waters. Canada’s political establishment has been turned upside down, and the recent history of other Anglosphere nations offers no precedents here. I suspect, however, they will be keenly interested in how well the Ottawa rookies perform. In recent months both the United States and the United Kingdom have seen vicious arguments about the relevance of prior political experience for actual political performance at the national level. In Canada that question is no longer a theoretical one.  Canada has handed the reins over to the rookies. It is too early to tell if this decision was a wise one. 2016 is the year to test if the political greenhorns can run a country as well as the old guard.

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But what are their life experiences? If they don't have depth of political experience, does depth of life experience potentially compensate or do they lack that too?

In some countries this would raise the possibility that the senior bureaucrats will now run the place. What is Canada's officialdom like? Is there a "yes minister" type civil service elite that has significant asabiya/cohesion? or does the elected government really get to completely overhaul the top positions like they do in America?
I am totally clueless, so any information will be new information for me.

It feels like an odd time in rich-country politics right now, because on one hand establishments are still very strong, but on the other hand most people can think of a few urgent issues which they don't think the establishment has an answer for (although people often disagree about what those issues are). So in the past few years there have been a number of sudden shifts when enough people can agree on whose solution to try.

omarali50: Canada has federal agencies which do a pretty good job of being non-partisan, with a class of career bureaucrats at the top … but "Yes Minister" feels wrong (too cynical? too organized?) I don't feel qualified to predict how Trudeau's prime minstership will go after living most of my life in Canada … I may read cuneiform, but I study royal inscriptions not liver models and astrological omens.

That Trudeau's cabinet is made up of neophytes isn't a big surprise. His party only had 34 seats in the previous parliament. Some of the 34 were not re-elected or did not seek re-election. Even accounting for people who had previously served as MPs and re-entered parliament in 2015, that does not leave a big pool of veterans to appoint to cabinet.

Also, in the previous parliament, Trudeau's Liberals had very little representation in certain regions of Canada (especially the west). Prime Ministers often want to ensure that different regions are represented, so cabinet ministers from the west would generally be new.

Trudeau's cabinet actually contains more people with cabinet experience than former Prime Minister Stephen Harper's first cabinet. In Trudeau's cabinet, Goodale, MacAuley, Dion, McCallum and Bennett all have prior experience as ministers. In Harper's first Cabinet, only Nicholson and (floor-crossing) Emerson had previous federal cabinet experience.