A cabinet shuffle in January (to borrow phrasing one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s predecessors) doesn’t necessarily mean an election — but this one does help position the Liberals for an election if necessary.
It’s routine for governments to replace ministers who decide they will not be part of the team seeking re-election at the next vote. Liberal MP Navdeep Bains recently announced he would not run in the next election in order to spend more time with his family.
That prompted the shuffle which tasked François-Philippe Champagne with filling Bains’ old cabinet spot as minister of innovation, science and industry. Marc Garneau took over the foreign affairs portfolio, while Omar Alghabra was promoted from his parliamentary secretary role to replace Garneau as transport minister. And Jim Carr returns to cabinet as a special representative for the Prairies.
Announcing the shuffle from the steps of Rideau Cottage, Trudeau was asked repeatedly if the move foreshadows an election in the spring. The prime minister did not explicitly rule out an early election, saying he’d prefer not to go into a campaign before all Canadians who want one can get a vaccine for COVID-19.
WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the prospects for an early election
That will not stop rampant election speculation — the national capital’s favourite pastime during minority parliaments.
There are simply too many moving pieces to see this shuffle as a clear sign that an election call is coming — possibly one tied to the budget in February or March.
The pandemic and the national vaccination campaign are only the biggest and most unpredictable of those moving pieces, but they’re more than enough to upend any election plans that might exist.
Now that Ontario has released grim modelling numbers that suggest the pandemic is going to get a lot worse before it gets better, any plan to call an election in a few months would depend on a lot of things beyond the Liberals’ control going exactly right for them.
So this shuffle appears to be about being ready for an election call whenever it comes, rather than preparing for one already being planned. A minority government’s odds of suddenly collapsing increase the longer it lasts — and Trudeau’s government is approaching the usual best-by date of minority governments in Canada.
The Liberals want to be ready to call an election if the opportunity presents itself, or if the opposition parties team up to defeat them. The window is relatively limited, considering that both Ontario and Quebec are scheduled to hold provincial elections in 2022.
But if an election does come in 2021, this week’s shuffle moves some pieces into place for the Liberals.
The minister for Mississauga
With the exception of Carr being added to the cabinet table (though without a ministry to run), the shuffle didn’t change the provincial allocation of portfolios. It didn’t even change the regional distribution of cabinet spots within provinces.
But with his promotion to cabinet, Alghabra now becomes the unofficial minister for Mississauga.
Bains was first elected in the riding of Mississauga–Brampton South (as it was then called) in 2004. He’s been on the ballot in every subsequent election, losing only in 2011. He returned to the House of Commons by winning Mississauga–Malton in 2015 and was named to Trudeau’s first cabinet.
Alghabra also has a long track record in Mississauga, stretching back to 2006 when he was first elected. He was defeated in 2008 and 2011 but won the Mississauga Centre seat in 2015 and 2019.
The new minister has handled some difficult files as the prime minister’s parliamentary secretary. He worked with victims’ families after Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was shot down in Iran last year, for example.
But electorally, Bains and Alghabra have also played important roles in marshalling support for the Liberals in their part of the Greater Toronto Area.
And the GTA is an electorally decisive part of the country. Combined, Mississauga and its neighbouring cities of Brampton, Oakville and Burlington delivered 15 seats to the Liberals in the 2019 federal election, as many as the Liberals won in all of Western Canada.
After 2019, the GTA was rewarded with three cabinet ministers: Bains, International Development Minister Karina Gould (Burlington) and Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand (Oakville).
Sweeping the region was an important factor in the Liberals’ victory in the last election. The Conservatives, meanwhile, have struggled for traction there; the CPC averaged a loss of 5.1 percentage points between the 2015 and 2019 elections in Mississauga, Brampton, Oakville and Burlington, losing support in all but one seat.
It’s part of a broader trend the Conservatives desperately need to reverse. Since 2011, the party has lost an average of 14.7 points in ridings in the region. There are few parts of Canada where the Conservatives have lost more support over the last decade.
The Liberals need to keep it that way if they want to win the next election. Ensuring that Mississauga still has its minister after Bains’ departure could help them do that.
Nod to the Prairies and another top post for Quebec
The electoral implications of the other moves made by Trudeau are more modest. With his return to cabinet, Carr joins fellow Manitoban Dan Vandal as the only Liberal minister representing a seat east of Vancouver and west of Thunder Bay.
Styled as the special representative for the Prairies, Carr’s role is an explicit recognition of this government’s weak ties to the West. With no seats in either Alberta or Saskatchewan, the government’s options are limited. So are its prospects for electoral gains in the region.
That’s not the case for Quebec, however, which is key to the Liberals’ hope of re-gaining a majority government.
For the Liberals, moving Garneau from transport to foreign affairs represents a promotion for a reliable, consistent and steady performer — and for a Quebecer with a top spot around the cabinet table.
There were seven ridings in Quebec in which the Liberals finished six percentage points or fewer behind the winner. Flipping those seats alone would put the Liberals halfway to a majority government.
That assumes they can keep what they won last time — which isn’t a given. The Bloc Québécois, still second in the polls in the province, finished within six points of the Liberals in 10 seats across Quebec.
It might be reading too much into things to assume this week’s cabinet shuffle is all about an imminent election. But in a minority Parliament, politics is always more or less about the next election — and this shuffle is no exception.