Governments always work at the intersection of the things they want to do and the things that are just going to happen anyway, whether anyone wants them or not. As Justin Trudeau enters his first full calendar year as Canada’s Prime Minister, the traffic at that intersection is getting heavy.
Here is what he wants to do over the next few months.
He wants Canada to become home to as many as 25,000 Syrian refugees. In the Ottawa public service, careers are being made and broken as officials work around the clock to figure out how that logistical nightmare can be made to happen. Trudeau needs to appoint new ambassadors to the two most important foreign capitals in the world, Washington and Beijing. The Washington post can’t go to another distinguished elder statesman, one of Trudeau’s advisers told Maclean’s: Canada needs “a lobbyist, essentially,” who can work the shifting factions of a largely Republican Congress, as well as the outgoing President and his replacement. Resuscitating Canada’s relationship with China may be an even greater challenge. Australia will be a model; when Trudeau met in November with the former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, they mostly talked about relations with China.
Trudeau plans his second first-ministers meeting in March. It comes four months after his first brief meeting with the premiers, which came nearly seven years after the last one Stephen Harper held. It had been 90 years since the federal and provincial governments had gone that long without meeting. Organizing the November meeting “was hell,” one federal official said. “Nobody here remembered how to do them.”
(Muscle memory is turning out to be a constant challenge for the Trudeau crew as they work with the federal public service to implement their stacked agenda, after Stephen Harper spent a decade trying to dampen bureaucratic enthusiasm. In meetings on refugee resettlement, the Trudeau adviser said, “It became clear early on that [bureaucrats’] overriding objective was not to get yelled at. We had to say, ‘Guys, that’s not how we’re going to work.’ ”)
March will also feature a visit with Barack Obama in Washington, which planners expect will be considerably more ambitious than a handshake and coffee. Then a budget, Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s first. It will contain, or be accompanied by, details of the infrastructure plan Liberals believe was key to Trudeau’s election. That plan “is a huge, huge, huge deal,” the Trudeau adviser says. “Getting that right or wrong will go a long way toward determining the public’s thumbs up or down on this government.”
And in time for Earth Day, April 22, Trudeau and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna will unveil the climate-change plan they are trying to design in co-operation with the provinces.
Amid all of this, sometime soon, Trudeau’s staff is convinced he needs to get back out of the Ottawa bubble he disdained for most of the two years he was leader of a tiny opposition caucus. “We gotta get him on the road,” the adviser said.
That’s the plan. Meanwhile there is the constant barrage of the unplanned and the downright unwanted—some of whose contours are already apparent.
Morneau finally admitted on Dec. 7 that his tax increases on the rich won’t cover the cost of his tax cuts for everyone else. The resulting $1.2-billion hole will be all the harder to cover because, the Parliamentary Budget Office says, economic growth isn’t matching projections. That depresses all government revenues. The dollar’s value is declining. The price of oil is falling faster. The research and innovation performance of Canada’s private sector is lagging badly behind that of other big countries. All of these trends will make it hard to afford anything an ambitious government wants to do. Add in the less wonky horsemen of public administration apocalypse—natural disaster, terrorist attack, scandal—and there will be many days when events will keep Trudeau from striking anything at all off his to-do list. Those are also the days when he’ll be truly tested.
Justin Trudeau’s cabinet
Almost all of those awful days lie ahead, but in early stress tests—the Paris terrorist massacres, the controversy over the nannies who accompanied Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau to Paris—the new government has already had to manoeuvre through obstacles. It is settling into distinctive habits and attitudes.
“They’re a bit like the [Paul] Martin crew,” a longtime observer who has worked closely with several successive federal governments said about the group around Trudeau. “Go go go, all the time. They have a lot to deliver.” But where Martin’s senior staff, collectively nicknamed “the board,” was emotionally hot and prone to view the latest event, crisis or bit of expert advice as the one that trumped all others, Trudeau so far has managed to take a longer view.
Part of this is the example set by Gerald Butts, the Prime Minister’s principal secretary and former McGill University roommate. “Questions like, ‘How did we get into trouble, isn’t this going to hurt us’—Gerry doesn’t suffer that sort of thing gladly,” another government staffer said.
But much of the tone comes from the Prime Minister himself. In early group conversations in the Langevin Block where the government’s top political staffers and bureaucratic advisers work, Trudeau has often been the one who cuts conversations about the day’s worries short and reminds others to consider the long-term goal, people familiar with those meetings said.
“He’s got 320 campaign promises, and four years to deliver them, and he really wants to ensure they don’t get off track,” the longtime observer said. And so participants describe a peculiar characteristic of the Trudeau government in its early days: despite the rush to deliver on commitments and the early hiccups of botched plans or unforeseen catastrophe, the general atmosphere has been one of eerie calm. Turbo schedule, Zen attitude.
“Totally Zen about headlines,” the Trudeau adviser said. “How do you think we survived the last six months?”
The longtime observer confirmed the self-diagnosis. “If the nanny thing had happened to Harper, his PMO’s reaction would have been, ‘Who do we shoot?’ ”
There are other differences in work style. Every PM has his own way of staying on top of a constant flood of information and propagating a constant drumbeat of decisions. Paul Martin liked long meetings with a very large number of participants, an extension of the freewheeling budget preparation meetings that filled his winters earlier in his career, when he was Jean Chrétien’s minister of finance. Harper depended, increasingly over his decade in office, on written input, for which he had a voracious appetite and a tremendous capacity. He would want written memos, a page or four or seven pages long, on pressing issues. If one memo gave rise to questions, he’d ask for more to respond. There’d be 40 or 50 of these written pieces in a week, but Harper would rarely meet their authors or anyone from the departments charged with implementing his decisions.
Trudeau relies more on the personal touch. In the early going, he has met every day with Janice Charette, the clerk of the Privy Council, who is the top-ranking public servant in Ottawa. Harper appointed her. Trudeau will replace her at some point, but he is in no hurry on that score. In the meantime the Prime Minister, Butts, and chief of staff Katie Telford meet Charette every day to discuss a range of issues. This puts a lot of pressure on Charette, who has her own stack of readings and briefings to digest before each meeting, but it allows the Prime Minister to consider the effects of initiatives across a range of portfolios.
But the long-range focus is not merely a matter of Trudeau’s personal style. It is baked into the design of his government. “Right from the get-go there was a keen desire to make sure we focused on results and pacing of delivery,” Peter Harder, a former deputy minister who ran Trudeau’s transition team, said in an interview. The most visible sign of this is the most important cabinet committee. Under previous governments it would have been called “priorities and planning.” Under Trudeau it’s called “agenda and results.” Its goal is to relentlessly track progress against targets to make sure the government delivers on its agenda items. “It’s never been done before,” Harder said. “Our cabinet committees [in previous governments] have always been focused on incoming events, not on stocks of results.” The agenda and results membership list includes three ministers who are often named among Trudeau’s closest personal confidants: House leader Dominic LeBlanc, Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains.
If there is a management guru who has guided the thinking of Trudeau’s team in the early days, it is Sir Michael Barber, who helped implement education reforms during Tony Blair’s first term as prime minister of the U.K. In Blair’s second mandate he became Blair’s chief adviser on delivery, charged with achieving similar results across government. Since then he has become a worldwide consultant helping governments achieve results. In 2004, when Dalton McGuinty was the new premier of Ontario and wanted to make a big difference in the province’s schools, his chief of staff, the same Gerald Butts who would become a member of Trudeau’s inner circle, spent four weeks following Barber around London. They have remained in touch ever since, and Barber is slated to meet Trudeau’s cabinet early in the New Year.
Trudeau, Butts and Telford are all reading Barber’s latest book, How to Run a Government So That Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy. Barber’s thesis is that citizens’ faith in government depends on governments being able to achieve their goals, and that constant attention and broadly available data are needed if those goals are to be reached. “The case made in this book has a moral purpose,” he writes. “More people are more likely to lead more fulfilled lives if they live in countries with effective accountable governments, which can enforce basic individual rights and deliver effective public good.”
This is the kind of talk that turns the new Canadian Prime Minister’s crank. A year ago, at a meeting of the Canada 2020 think tank in Ottawa, Trudeau interviewed Martin O’Malley, the former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor whose campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has so far failed to take off, but who was able to deliver impressive results on education and health care. Like Barber, McGuinty (on his best days) and now Trudeau, O’Malley’s conviction is that success lies in “selecting the right targets, publicly stating them and being willing to take the flak if you don’t hit them,” the Trudeau adviser said.
“It comes with its lumps, because people, given freedom, make mistakes,” the adviser said. Nor has the Trudeau team figured out how to adapt Barber’s model, which was very clearly led from Blair’s office in the U.K., to a decentralized system of cabinet government in a loose federation like Canada. “That’s something we have not yet cracked,” the Trudeau adviser acknowledged.
But Trudeau’s commitment to a freer flow of information, and greater autonomy for cabinet ministers and all parliamentarians, “is not some touchy-feely, love-people, hug-everybody thing that we did,” the adviser insists. “It’s what we think actually works. Over time, the reasonably good Harper ministers left because they just got sick of being managed that way.”
It’s easy to imagine all the ways events could knock this new Prime Minister off his game. It’s almost certain that, to some extent, they will. The resiliency of this government will be tested as harshly as that of any of its predecessors. It is some consolation to them that they have a plan and a governing philosophy. They’ll need both.