Winning four elections in a row is a rare feat in Canadian politics, and it’s one Justin Trudeau seems determined to match. But with his party trailing Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives by as much as 10 points, it’s increasingly clear that the prime minister had to do something drastic. And yes, pulling the trigger on one of the biggest cabinet shuffles we’ve seen in decades certainly meets that test.
There’s no shortage of change in the changes. Seven new MPs joined his cabinet, replacing the seven that were booted out, with 23 getting their job descriptions changed and just eight emerging unscathed. But for all the churn, little has changed when it comes to how this government actually operates. Trudeau’s longtime chief of staff, Katie Telford, remains firmly ensconced in her job. So do Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland and Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly, his two most likely successors as leader. His longtime friend Dominic LeBlanc, meanwhile, will take on an even bigger role as minister of public safety, democratic institutions and intergovernmental affairs.
Even some of the new ministers have long-standing ties to the prime minister. Ya’ara Saks, the new minister of mental health and addictions, was the prime minister’s long-standing walking partner back in university. Arif Virani, the new minister of justice, is his former classmate at McGill (class of 1994). They join a group of former classmates and staffers that includes Marc Miller and Mary Ng. It’s a safe bet that Anna Gainey, the newly elected MP for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Westmount and a very close personal friend of the Trudeaus, will join them in cabinet in the not-so-distant future.
The gang, in other words, is still very much together. As Paul Wells wrote on his Substack, “this prime minister really doesn’t do shakeups. He keeps his chief of staff, his indispensable deputy, his own way of thinking and talking about his government. Everything else swirls around. He came to office promising real change. Increasingly what’s real is what doesn’t change.”
In fairness, there’s a certain logic here. Loyalty goes a long way in politics, and that’s especially true when your back is against the wall the way Trudeau’s is right now. Surrounding yourself with people you can trust is an understandable instinct, and it speaks well of Trudeau’s instincts as a human being and friend.
As a politician, though, it could be a trap of his own making. After all, these are people who see him as much as their friend as they do their boss, and they may not be able to see him and his decisions in the sort of neutral light that tends to illuminate the truth. Even if they can, they might not be able or inclined to share that truth with him given how uncomfortable it’s becoming.
If this government is going to last beyond the next election, it has to do more than wait for Poilievre’s Conservatives to step on its own shoelaces. As I’ve said before, with more than 80 per cent of Canadians wanting some form of change, the Trudeau Liberals have to find a way to give it to them. And while a few new faces is a step in that direction, it’s not nearly big enough to get them where they need to be.
They need new energy, new ideas and a team that Canadians can trust to deliver on them. As former Trudeau adviser Tyler Meredith tweeted, “ultimately renewal comes down to ideas. And new Ministers can bring new ideas.” Perhaps. But that’s only true if they’re actually willing to speak truth to his power, something that can be hard for old friends and colleagues to do.
In hindsight, then, this shuffle could easily end up looking like so many deck chairs being rearranged rather than a new path being charted to avoid the Poilievre-shaped iceberg lurking out there. But if the prime minister has to go down with the Liberal ship, as seems increasingly likely, at least he’ll be surrounded by plenty of familiar faces.