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A New Finance Minister, a New Parliament and a New Agenda: A Vantage Perspective

A Government knocked off course by the fallout of the WE Charity and looking to re-frame its agenda against a new Conservative leader and a rejuvenated Bloc Québécois has pulled out the stops. Starting with the surprise resignation of former Finance Minister Bill Morneau, who despite some clear achievements was a focal point for negative attention on the ethical issues raised by WE Charity, the Government has moved quickly to put one of its best economic communicators in the job. Chrystia Freeland, after successfully landing NAFTA 2.0, has a major task ahead in setting the Government’s agenda in the face of serious economic headwinds while dealing with a massive deficit.

In taking over the role, Chrystia Freeland becomes the country’s first ever female Finance Minister. She will still maintain her existing role as Deputy Prime Minister, but will be relieved of her role as Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs in lieu of Dominic LeBlanc. No other Ministers were moved.

The Government is also trying to clear the decks of its current travails by proroguing Parliament until October. This action kills existing Government legislation and any committee business (subject to some exceptions such as private members’ bills) allowing the Government a somewhat unfettered month without having to face investigations and hearings in house committees which are controlled by the opposition. The return of Parliament after prorogation also allows the Government to set out a clear agenda in a speech from the throne. This document can serve two purposes. First, it is a message to the bureaucracy, the Government and the broader public about the Government’s overall focus as it looks at what it must do in a country dealing with the fallout of COVID and a nation-wide lockdown. Second, it can serve as a platform for an election campaign. 

A speech from the throne is a confidence measure and with the Bloc Quebecois and a new Conservative leader likely voting non-confidence, the Government’s survival cannot be guaranteed. A second major opportunity for the Government to outline its goals will be the fall economic statement. This will be Minister’s Freeland’s first major opportunity to make her own mark in the portfolio.

In addition to these broader themes, businesses, labour groups and members of the broader public who were looking to the Government of Canada for action on issues may need to adjust their expectations and renew their efforts. Freeland to Finance and a prorogued Parliament has at least three important implications:

  1.  First, those looking to the federal government for a decision on near term issues are likely to see those decisions delayed and/or changed. Delay is inevitable as a new Minister gets up to speed on the urgent and important issues facing the department. And issues of lesser importance to the Government will experience the longest delays. Decisions may also be subject to change as a new Minister with her own perspectives and Cabinet allies may have different priorities. This means those with issues before the Government will want to ensure that the landscape hasn’t changed against them – and those who think the decision may have gone against them may have a second chance. In addition, a new speech from the throne will set out priority areas of action for the Government which may result in ministers and public officials focusing on those issues instead of those that pre-occupied the prior administration.
  2. Secondly, despite recent media speculation, some tension between the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister is an expected feature of any government. And most governments benefit from a finance minister with an independent base in the party and the broader public. Freeland brings a strong point of view on economic issues and a clear base in the Liberal party. This has the potential of creating a second important centre of decision-making on Government issues.
  3. Third, more broadly for the Government, Chrystia Freeland has the ability and experience to be an effective spokesperson for a middle class economic message which helped the Trudeau Government get elected in 2015 but which has lost its primacy. Her successful landing of NAFTA 2.0 and her prior experience as a financial journalist, combined with her skills with caucus and the media, create the opportunity for the Government to re-frame its economic message as it looks to the next election.

In short, the Prime Minister has loudly decided that the Government needs a fresh start. We anticipate that the October reboot will see a more ambitious and interventionist approach towards the challenge of economic recovery in the face of COVID-19, an anticipation signaled by just four words: “Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland.”

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