Op-ed: Six takeaways for Ottawa from the new federal cabinet

Public affairs consultant Chris Day examines the potential impact on Ottawa's tourism sector, local public servants and the third phase of LRT from the newly unveiled federal cabinet
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For Canadian prime ministers, cabinet making is rarely easy. 

The country is vast and diverse; reflecting it perfectly in a cabinet is tough. 

Then, add to that the at-times-conflicting demands of policy (i.e., delivering on promises credibly) and politics (read: keeping caucus happy, avoiding scandal and getting re-elected). 

For Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, crafting a cabinet for his second mandate is made even tougher due to growing signs of a softening economy, his party’s minority status with notable shutouts in two entire provinces and re-enflamed national unity tensions.

Voters in Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec elected 12 Liberal MPs last month (eight per cent of the governing caucus). Here are six key takeaways for our region – and the local economy – from Wednesday’s cabinet picks.

1. Catherine McKenna holds the keys to Ottawa’s transit future

After a high-profile and controversial tenure as environment minister, the Ottawa-Centre MP has been given new responsibilities. As infrastructure minister, she’s also got big bucks to spend in the coming years. With the City of Ottawa moving full steam ahead to Phase 3 of light rail and Gatineau finalizing its own rail transit plans, having a local MP as the federal decision-maker will be very helpful.

At environment, McKenna had to play bad cop with the provinces and wield a big regulatory stick to impose the federal carbon tax. She will have to shift to good cop mode in her new role of literal and figurative bridge builder to get shovels in the ground and get major projects built.

2. Mona Fortier snags a seat in cabinet

Ottawa-Vanier MP Mona Fortier was promoted to cabinet, adding a second local voice at the table. As associate finance minister, she will also be tapped as minister of middle-class prosperity. Her mandate letter will surely give more detail on what exactly that means and what will be expected of her. But a second voice in cabinet surely can’t hurt this area. 

3. It’s the economy, stupid

Along with Fortier’s associate finance minister role, there are new ministerial titles that include economic development, rural economic development, export promotion, and so on. All of this signals that the Trudeau Liberals see what others around the world see: an economic slowdown is coming. With the election behind them, business groups and others are urging Parliamentarians of all stripes to turn their attention to pressing economic matters. Team Trudeau took a lot of credit for job growth and strong topline economic figures in its first term. If or when a recession hits, it will test this new minority government, its economic policies and its fiscal track.

4. Public servants can breathe a sigh of relief

Public service union leaders cheered the Liberals’ re-election. As did locals who make their living in commercial real estate. The Liberals won the seats they did here largely due to support from public servants. And there is no indication that the growth of recent years will end anytime soon. (That’s one of the reasons PwC recently listed Ottawa’s housing market third in Canada for real estate prospects in 2020.)

Jean-Yves Duclos is a smart and supremely competent pick for Treasury Board president. It will fall to him and a cabinet newcomer to ensure public servants are well served. Anita Anand of Oakville is the new minister of public services and procurement, a huge test for the first-time MP and minister. Fixing Phoenix and finding its replacement now falls to her.

5. Technology & innovation – buzzwords or real priorities?

Joyce Murray was stripped of the Treasury Board presidency to focus exclusively on digital government, a needed area of investment. And Navdeep Bains stays at industry with a focus on innovation and science. That we know. What’s still unclear is whether and how the government will address an open letter released during the campaign calling for more economic policies that help Canadian innovators scale-up globally.

Benjamin Bergen, the head of the business association that penned the letter, told me this week the government needs to address skilled labour shortages, increase access to growth capital and customers, modernize the tax system, tax foreign tech giants more, and develop a national strategy for data if it’s serious about reversing lagging innovation outputs.

6. Tourism takes a holiday from cabinet titles

Tourism is Ottawa’s third-largest industry and employer and a major economic driver across the country. Yet there wasn’t a mention of it in the cabinet posts announced Wednesday. (It used to be its own ministry.) Industry watchers will surely be looking for more clarity and detail when mandate letters are released.  

When Justin Trudeau was first elected in 2015, he promised a return to government by cabinet. Not everyone is convinced that’s happened. But in a minority parliament, the prime minister and his team – elected and non-elected – will have to play well with others to get anything done. It will be an interesting test for the 36 people named Wednesday and the hundreds more who support them. 

All eyes will be on them, and on Ottawa, every time there’s a matter of confidence in the coming years. The House of Commons resumes sitting December 5. 

Chris Day is president of Winston-Wilmont, Inc., a bilingual public affairs consultancy based in Ottawa. He has previously served in executive roles in public, private and not-for-profit organizations.