Late last month, the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) unveiled the government’s new roster of parliamentary secretaries that will support Justin Trudeau’s 38-member cabinet in the 44th Parliament.

But even those who follow the minutiae of Canadian politics could not be blamed for missing the announcement. The Dec. 3 news release dropped late on a Friday, days before the House of Commons was to rise for the winter break. Even more startling, the announcement came more than five weeks after the prime minister revealed his post-election cabinet on Oct. 26.

While virtually no one beyond the Liberal caucus and senior Ottawa lobbyists were awaiting the announcements with bated breath, it still amounted to unusual timing as parliamentary secretaries are typically appointed shortly after the composition of the federal cabinet is revealed.

To have the House of Commons sit — even merely for a few days — without these “executive backbenchers” in place was certainly an oddity. But this was no normal year, with the Commons not resuming until more than two months after the Sept. 20 federal election.

The vital, yet unrecognized role of the parliamentary secretary

Parliamentary secretaries have long played a vital, yet often unrecognized role in Parliament and in government, serving their respective ministers. It’s also a poorly understood position outside the confines of political Ottawa where civic literacy is arguably at an all-time low in this country.

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien famously began his political career in the mid-1960s serving as then-finance minister Mitchell Sharp's parliamentary secretary in prime minister Lester B. Pearson’s cabinet. Chrétien’s experience as Sharp’s right-hand man played a seminal role facilitating his entry into Pearson’s cabinet in 1968 as minister of national revenue.

In simplest terms, parliamentary secretaries are MPs from the governing party appointed by the prime minister to assist cabinet ministers with their parliamentary and departmental duties. Under the direction of these ministers, parliamentary secretaries handle routine matters in the House of Commons (including answering for their ministers in question period), represent the government on Commons committees, and assume some extra parliamentary responsibilities.

Parliamentary secretaries continue to play an indispensable role connecting members of the executive with ordinary backbench MPs both in and outside of the Commons. Here's how. #cdnpoli

Despite the low-profile nature of the role, parliamentary secretaries act as an essential link between powerful ministers and backbench government MPs; they can also undertake special responsibilities as assigned by the prime minister. Equally important, the office can serve as a training ground for future ministers, or as a means to reward loyal members of the government caucus who were not appointed to cabinet as a result of geographic, gender or other considerations.

Seventeen members of the prime minister’s current cabinet served as parliamentary secretaries at some point over the past six years. Of those, Francois-Philippe Champagne, Sean Fraser, and Omar Alghabra — former parliamentary secretaries in the heavyweight departments of Finance, Foreign Affairs, and the PMO — have all been rewarded with influential posts in the current cabinet.

The appointments process: then and now

Over the decades, the appointments process surrounding the position has evolved. For example, throughout the Chrétien era, the PMO implemented a two-year rotational system, initially used in Pierre Trudeau’s government, whereby every caucus member (with few exceptions) was appointed to the role for a 24-month term.

While this model was equitable and allowed for nearly every backbench Liberal MP to try their hand at the role from 1993-2003, it was also subject to considerable criticism from within Chretien's caucus because it was not merit-based and did not incentivize backbench MPs to work hard to earn these positions.

That changed in late 2003 when former prime minister Paul Martin not only dispensed with the rotational appointments system, but also arranged to have all parliamentary secretaries sworn into the Queen’s Privy Council — a privilege traditionally bestowed only upon cabinet ministers and other prominent figures.

In addition, Martin’s parliamentary secretaries all assumed assigned policy responsibilities and were invited to select cabinet meetings when a policy matter for which they had specific oversight was being discussed. Upon becoming prime minister, Martin also appointed three parliamentary secretaries who reported directly to him with responsibility for Canada-U.S. relations, small business, and cities.

At the time, these added responsibilities and perks (including a bump in pay) led many in official Ottawa to perceive the role as similar to that of a junior cabinet minister or minister of state.

But in 2006, former prime minister Stephen Harper resorted to the practice of not appointing parliamentary secretaries to the Privy Council, and Trudeau followed suit after forming government in 2015. Both Harper and Trudeau did not revive Chretien’s rotational appointments system.

New parliamentary secretaries plug regional gaps in Trudeau cabinet

When the PMO announced its latest roster of 39 parliamentary secretaries that will serve Trudeau’s 38-member cabinet. The departments of Foreign Affairs, Environment and Climate Change, Natural Resources, and Housing and Diversity and Inclusion were each assigned two parliamentary secretaries — hinting at the re-elected Liberal government’s key priorities in its mandate.

The makeup of this team of executive backbenchers is ethnically and gender-balanced, and plug regional gaps in cabinet representation. For example, the prime minister appointed two veteran Manitoba MPs to presumably compensate for the fact his cabinet includes one mere junior minister (Dan Vandal) from the province.

Winnipeg MPs Kevin Lamoureux (parliamentary secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons) and Terry Duguid (parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change) will no doubt help to ensure Manitoba’s interests are on the federal government’s radar.

Trudeau also appointed parliamentary secretaries from two key southwestern Ontario ridings the government must keep in the Liberal fold if they are to retain power. Liberal MPs Peter Fragiskatos (London North Centre) and Irek Kusmierczyk (Windsor-Tecumseh) were given important roles supporting the ministers of National Revenue and Employment, Workforce Development, and Disability Inclusion, respectively.

This was an important move, as southwestern Ontario was shut out of Trudeau’s cabinet for the first time since 2015 when former minister Bardish Chagger (Waterloo) was not reappointed to the executive last October. While Fragiskatos and Kusmierczyk could easily serve in the cabinet themselves (both hold PhD’s in government and international relations from prestigious schools), their talents will be put to good use supporting senior ministers.

The national capital’s lack of strong cabinet representation was bolstered by the appointment of four talented Ottawa MPs: Marie-France Lalonde (Orleans), Yasir Naqvi (Ottawa Centre), Jenna Sudds (Kanata-Carleton), and Anita Vandenbeld (Ottawa West-Nepean). All four are potential future ministers, with Naqvi and Lalonde bringing substantial cabinet experience to Parliament Hill from Ontario's Queen’s Park.

Last fall, the national capital region — a solidly Liberal area of more than a million people that encompasses the Ontario and Quebec sides of the Ottawa River — was only rewarded with one cabinet minister (Mona Fortier).

Other notable appointments included Greg Fergus (parliamentary secretary to the prime minister and president of the Treasury Board) and Rob Oliphant (parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs). Fergus and Oliphant were the only parliamentary secretaries sworn into the Privy Council last month, giving them access to cabinet documents.

Both were also seen as strong contenders for cabinet. Their Privy Council membership — a first among Trudeau’s parliamentary secretaries — will be seen among many political-watchers in Ottawa as a consolation prize for their exclusion from the prime minister’s inner circle.

The future of the position

Some will argue that the influence of parliamentary secretaries is negligible in an era where governments of every political stripe are increasingly centralized in the PMO and in the hands of a select few senior cabinet ministers. In spite of this undeniable trend, parliamentary secretaries continue to play an indispensable role connecting members of the executive with ordinary backbench MPs both in and outside of the Commons.

They are not token appointments, as they can be perceived in provincial governments.

The reality is that the role of the modern-day federal cabinet minister is only becoming more demanding and international in scope — especially in light of the 24/7 news cycle that is exacerbated by a political environment where social media has become ubiquitous.

Given this new backdrop, it’s unavoidable that ministers will consistently look to their parliamentary secretaries to shoulder additional responsibilities: whether they be in the Commons, championing specific policy initiatives, or representing their departments domestically and in the media when ministers are conducting government business abroad.

As a result, the role of the executive backbencher is likely to continue to evolve and assume further dimensions and importance over the coming years.

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