Guest column: New cabinet must learn to say ‘no’ to prime minister’s office

Published Jul 29, 2023  •  Last updated 8 hours ago  •  3 minute read

trudeau
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walks to the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Feb. 1, 2023. Photo by Blair Gable /REUTERS

By Andrew MacDougall

Windsor Star

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In the latest sign that everything is just fine in Justin Trudeau’s Ottawa, the prime minister has shuffled his ministerial deck, bringing in seven new faces, rearranging dozens more and saying “thank you for your service, here’s a (possible) ambassadorship” to a few of his veteran hands.

We’re now eight years into Trudeau’s tenure and apparently it’s time for a fresh start.

So, say hello to rookie Minister Dan Vandal, everyone. I mean, who else are you going to call when you need to raise a little hell to deliver some results, right?

You deploy “The Vandal”! It’s nominative determinism at its finest. Wait, what’s that? You mean, Minister Vandal was already in the cabinet? Oh.

And that’s the point. Vandal could have been in before, he could be in now. None of it matters because none of Trudeau’s cabinet members, it seems, are allowed to so much as squeeze out a timid hello without the say-so of the Prime Minister’s Office, and everyone knows it.

So, here’s my advice to the new crop of cabinet members being paraded out by the PMO: learn to say “no.”

I know, I know. You’ve probably only gotten the jobs because you promised to never say the word “no” to the PMO, but “no” you must, and “no” you shall. At least, if you want to get something done.

And you don’t have to worry about your jobs. Having just put you there and praised you as the answer to the country’s problems, the prime minister is hardly in any position to then volte-face and yank you.

Trudeau’s not in much of any position these days, so poorly is he performing — whether that’s on Chinese interference, cost-of-living, or housing starts.

You, my new cabinet friends, are now in the pole position. So use it.

Coming as it did on the day a fresh round of polling put the Liberals 10 points behind their Conservative opposition, the prime minister’s shuffle can equally be read as a nobbling of his potential rivals.

Anita Anand to the Treasury Board Secretariat? Is that really where the well-regarded minister is needed, especially with Ukraine still boiling? Trudeau has also kept Chrystia Freeland nailed to his economic masthead, etc.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t some interesting moves with Sean Fraser to Housing, Infrastructure and Communities probably being the pick of the litter.

With polling showing Trudeau’s appeal fading among younger cohorts, rekindling the dream of housing affordability should be top of the wish list for a government that is now getting long in the tooth.

As a former director of communications to a prime minister, I have a further bit of advice for the new cabinet. Forget about the communications. Forget about the tweets (sorry, the Xs), the Instagram posts and the exquisitely crafted video footage of you “relating” to ordinary people.

You can tell the thousands of people in your collective communications departments to stand down. It’s time to show, not tell.

Because it ain’t gonna be the comms that saves you from a drubbing at the polls; it will be delivery. If you don’t deliver, nothing you will say about not delivering will help you.

You remember “delivery,” don’t you? “Deliverology” might feel very 2015 (along with gender-balanced cabinets), but you need results.

So go deliver, new ministers.

Canadians are telling their elected leaders they want cheaper food, cheaper fuel and cheaper houses, not cheap shots on social issues that won’t put food on the table.

They want less sizzle, more steak. They want action, not words. Most of all, they want Justin Trudeau out of their faces, so start by getting him out of yours.

This is the last chance for members of a Trudeau cabinet to show Canadians they matter. To show they’re more than mere pawns on the PMO’s chessboard. It’s time to say “no.”

Andrew MacDougall is a London-based communications consultant and ex-director of communications to former prime minister Stephen Harper.