In his days as one of Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet ministers, Jean Chrétien took pride in how infrequently he and Trudeau spoke with each other. One day in the 1970s, Chrétien recalled recently, Trudeau expressed concern that since Chrétien had taken over a portfolio more than a year earlier, he had not asked for a single meeting to discuss potential problems. “But Prime Minister,” Chrétien told Trudeau, “you put me in cabinet to solve problems, not create them. If I don’t have any, I won’t bother you.” As Prime Minister,
Chrétien has held to that philosophy. He is, for the most part, happy to let ministers define policies and to step in only when problems appear. The best example of his governing style came before Finance Minister Paul Martin’s Feb.
22 budget: other than asking for regular progress reports, the Prime Minister became involved only in the final stages. That leadership style encourages innovation and allows strong ministers to flourish.
The flip side is that, without close supervision, weak ministers make for weak policy.
Already it is clear who is hot and who is not in cabinet. The one truly indispensable figure is Martin. He appears likely to fulfil his private dream of becoming a latter-day C. D. Howe, playing a key role in almost all aspects of government policy. A close second is Human Resources Minister Lloyd Axworthy, who, it is clear, has the authority and the will to carry out the mammoth task of reshaping the country’s social programs. Other early successes: International Trade Minister Roy MacLaren and Justice Minister Allan Rock, who have adjusted immediately and easily to cabinet life.
Some ministers who were expected to be stars lack a sense of direction. Into
that category fall Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Marcel Massé, Industry Minister John Manley and Sheila Copps in her capacity as environment minister. It’s not that they’ve done anything particularly wrong: it’s more that they haven’t done anything noteworthy yet. Copps, who is visible enough in her role as deputy prime minister, seems far more enchanted by that title than by her responsibilities for the environment. And Foreign Affairs Minister André Ouellet, among the most partisan of political creatures, looks uncomfortable in the striped-pants world of diplomatic niceties.
Some ministers are handicapped because they face problems not of their own making, or portfolios in which it is difficult to shine. How, after all, do you make a public mark as a revenue minister (David Anderson), House leader (Herb Gray) or Treasury Board president (Art Eggleton)? David Collenette must oversee the dismantling of much of his defence department. Ditto Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin, faced with a dying industry. Indian Affairs Minister Ron Irwin is learning that achieving consensus among Canada’s disparate native groups is as difficult as ... well, doing the same among other Canadians.
Finally, some ministers appear miscast, or out of their depth. Health Minister Diane Marleau’s mishandling of the tobacco tax debate makes it unlikely that she will survive the first cabinet shuffle. Natural Resources Minister Anne McLellan is uncomfortable in her portfolio but bright enough to deserve a second chance elsewhere. The first cabinet shuffle, likely later this year, will promote two women whose appointments to cabinet are only a matter of time: Toronto’s Jean Augustine and Vancouver’s Hedy Fry.
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