One of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s stated priorities is to improve relations with Canada’s provinces and territories, symbolized by his decision to take on the job of intergovernmental affairs minister himself.
But observers noted that when his cabinet was unveiled this week, none of the new ministers appeared to have been given responsibility for any of the country’s regional development agencies, at least not publicly.
There are six such agencies whose role is to foster economic development in the West, North, Ontario (which has two), Quebec and Atlantic Canada.
A troll through the agencies’ websites shows only one agency, Federal Economic Initiative for Northern Ontario, has a named minister — Navdeep Singh Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (formerly Industry Canada). For the others, no names so far.
On Friday, a spokeswoman for the prime minister said Trudeau had decided to give Bains responsibility for all six economic development agencies. Kate Purchase told the Toronto Star parliamentary secretaries, who have yet to be announced, will also be given regional-representation roles.
The fact that Trudeau limited his cabinet to 31 members made it seem no junior ministers were appointed. Conservative Stephen Harper’s last cabinet, which numbered 40 including him, had several ministers of state managing the regional development bureaucracy but allocated overall responsibility to senior ministers.
Late Thursday, a media report revealed that five of the female cabinet ministers announced Wednesday were actually ministers of state working under senior ministers. However, Trudeau now has decided to elevate them to full ministerial status, with commensurate pay and perks.
“I think what we saw [Wednesday] was the foundation of a cabinet that’s still going to evolve over time,” Andrew Heard, a Simon Fraser University political scientist, told Yahoo Canada News. “They painted the broad strokes but there’s a lot of details that need to be filled in.”
Heard reminds us that Harper’s first cabinet in 2006 had 26 members. Many incoming governments promise to run lean administrations, only to discover that the workload mitigates against that.
“I think we’ll see regional responsibilities emerge and I think over time I would not be surprised to see cabinet enlarged as well,” said Heard.
The role of regional ministers and agencies is more than just a matter of dry speculation.
“Regional ministers used to be very, very powerful, especially in the thirties and forties, and into the fifties,” Nelson Wiseman, director of Canadian Studies Program at the University of Toronto, said in an interview.
Federal political ministers had regional clout
All federal governments have had political ministers to represent their provinces. Historically they were dispensers of largesse — handing out lucrative contacts and patronage appointments to the government’s friends — and twisters of arms. They gave Ottawa clout, particularly in provinces whose governments were not receptive.
“Once upon a time regional ministers ended up determining more or less who was running in their regions for the party,” said Wiseman. “That’s long gone.”
The centralization of power in the Prime Minister’s Office, which grew under Pierre Elliott Trudeau in the 1970s and saw its most extreme expression under Harper, reduced the influence of regional ministers, though they’re still the prime minister’s chief lieutenants in their home provinces.
“They really haven’t counted in the big picture of things,” Wiseman said.
“Where regional ministers count the most is in Atlantic Canada, where they’re seen still as cash cows bringing money from the centre. They’re the most dependent.”
The elder Trudeau’s government scrapped its department of regional economic expansion, said professor Herman Bakvis of the University of Victoria’s School of Public Administration. It was replaced by a junior minister responsible for regional economic development.
“Then when the [Progressive] Conservatives came to power within a few years they resurrected the old agencies in the form of ACOA [Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency] on the East Coast,” said Bakvis, author of a 1991 book on regional ministers. “They figured they needed to have something in the West as well and that resulted in Western Economic Diversification.”
The number of regional agencies has expanded to six, including one responsible for southern Ontario, created in 2009 by Harper and overseen by then-finance minister Jim Flaherty.
“The significance of a regional minister has certainly been diminished over the years but I think it is a really important symbolic and practical involvement to have a specific minister designated for a region,” said Heard.
What that means for the established agencies is hard to know yet.
“I’d be surprised if they did away with them but that’s not to say that they may be thinking about it,” said Bakvis.
‘Reality of Canadian regionalism’
Successive governments, regardless of political stripe, have recognized “the reality of Canadian regionalism and the need for the regions to be fed, so to speak, particularly Quebec and Atlantic Canada,” he said.
But he noted ACOA has experienced steady funding cuts in recent years.
“A lot of that money is now in the Infrastructure [Canada] fund,” said Bakvis.
Just how Trudeau approaches regional files is likely to evolve as he assesses the strengths and weaknesses of his ministers, especially the untested rookies, for roles as political ministers in their regions.
“It will take a while to figure out, for example, which of the three B.C. ministers is really up to the task at hand,” said Heard.
Heard said a political minister is not normally the one to handle the day-to-day administration of a regional development agency. Details are delegated to ministers of state.
“But any issues that might involve political or patronage issues would certainly have been dealt with by the political minister, whether or not he had responsibility for the agency,” said Heard.
If Trudeau elects not to appoint any junior ministers, he could still devolve responsibility for the agencies, perhaps to parliamentary secretaries who do not have cabinet rank. But expect political ministers to emerge as the prime minister gets the measure of his cabinet.
An empowered political minister provides an important two-way communications channel to and from those in their province or region in addition to what Ottawa hears from provincial government, he said.
If Trudeau makes good his promise to return to cabinet-style government from the executive-style Harper model, it provides ministers an opportunity to have an impact in their region, said Bakvis.
“One practical benefit of it is it works against the centralization of power,” said Heard. “I think that’s been a negative effect we’ve seen over the last 15 or 20 years, the centralization of decision-making in the Prime Minister’s Office.”
What they’ll have to avoid, of course, is a return to the good old days of patronage and pork-barrelling.