One year from now, Justin Trudeau’s new government will be measured by its achievements, not just its ambitions.
We may even be speculating about a cabinet shuffle, or, at the very least, a new roster of parliamentary secretaries, since the 35 MPs appointed to those roles were given one-year-terms, to expire at the beginning of December 2016.
The one person who won’t be changing jobs, though, is Trudeau himself. As the boss, he will be measured by any number of benchmarks when we next do the round of year-in-review articles — promises kept, promises broken, problems created, problems solved.
But arguably the toughest test of Trudeau’s leadership in 2016 may well be one he set for himself — specifically, to roll back the central power of the Prime Minister’s Office.
“There’s a nice symmetry to that fact that the concentration of power that started under my father … will end if I become prime minister,” Trudeau vowed in an interview with CTV early in the election campaign.
This wasn’t an empty promise; he would repeat it in an interview with the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge a couple of weeks later. And right after he won power in October, Trudeau promised his cabinet would be composed of “actual deciders,” rather than ministers taking marching orders from the PMO.
Though it’s early days yet, so far the signals are decidedly mixed on whether Trudeau will be able to keep this promise. Power, once obtained, is very difficult to relinquish, and Trudeau is taking over in a town that has become highly accustomed to operating under tight PMO direction.
In his hour-long town hall session with Macleans magazine just before Christmas, Trudeau boasted that he’d freed up his new ministers to do their jobs on their own.
“We have an extraordinary team of amazing ministers who I’ve been able to say, you know, get started on this … start rolling on that, start consulting and acting on this, and they go and do it,” Trudeau said. “I’m able to watch a whole bunch of people do amazing things and help them where necessary.”
The “where necessary” part of those remarks is worth some closer examination. It is unquestionably true that the ministers have been busy, with everything from Syrian refugees to reconciliation with indigenous people to going through the books and preparing for the budget. They also seem to have more latitude to talk to the media than their Conservative predecessors did.
But those busy ministers are still operating mainly with a skeleton staff of political employees, even now, two months after the Liberals took power.
The delay in getting offices up and running at full speed is being widely attributed to a logjam in PMO, which is overseeing the massive hiring process. A PMO that gets this involved with staffing, one assumes, is an office that also wants to ensure its influence extends right across the government.
A few years ago, I did a long interview with Trudeau, in which we talked about what kind of leader he would be. This was before he’d won the top Liberal job but he had clearly given the matter some consideration.
Trudeau said he aspired to be a “helicopter” leader — a term he hastened to say was different from helicopter parenting. The metaphor came to him from his good friend James Curleigh, the Nova-Scotia-born son of a helicopter pilot, now a top executive at Levi-Strauss & Co.
Helicopter leaders keep a hovering eye over the entire battlefield, Trudeau explained, and swoop down only when there’s a pressing issue to be solved. “When there’s a problem, you get down, jump out, deal with it. Then you get right back up.”
Trudeau’s own celebrity power, as well as his decisive majority win, has certainly propelled him skyward since he took office. He hasn’t had to issue press releases branding his government as the “Trudeau government” — the international media has done that for him.
There’s an upside and a downside to this kind of popularity, however. While it gives him a strong mandate, it also seals the impression that Trudeau alone carries the government’s fortunes on his shoulders.
All the power that has accumulated in the PMO since his father’s time didn’t happen by accident. When the world gets complicated, leaders want to keep things simple, and the all-powerful boss is a straightforward operating principle.
So it’s going to take some discipline for Trudeau and his PMO to resist the temptation to take responsibility for every issue that arises in 2016, to let ministers be “actual deciders” on matters ranging from policy to who works in their offices.
A year from now, this new PM will be assessed by all the ways he exercised power in 2016. We should remind him, though, now and throughout the year, that he promised to spread that power around.