OTTAWA — The two ministers representing the Prairies in cabinet have both been left out of its influential steering committee amid concerns over how the Liberals will represent the one region where they struggle to gain seats.
Manitoba MP Dan Vandal and Alberta MP Randy Boissonnault are the two Prairie voices in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 39-minister cabinet, and both hold secondary roles.
Ministers are accountable for specific departments or portfolios, but they also participate in committees that sketch out the government’s overall approach to larger issues, such as reconciliation, foreign affairs or security.
Often, ministers bring proposals to those committees to weigh options in groups of less than 10, and get into more detailed deliberations than when the entire cabinet meets to approve policy.
The most powerful committee is called agenda, results and communications. Chaired by the prime minister, it sets the government’s order of priorities and their overall strategic agenda.
When Trudeau revealed his cabinet in October, longtime Liberal strategist David Herle told the Free Press the prime minister seemed to deliberately limit input from the Prairies. Trudeau cancelled Winnipeg South Centre MP Jim Carr’s role as special adviser on issues affecting the region, all the while doubling down on an energy-sector transition.
At the time, Herle suggested Trudeau could appoint Vandal or Boissonnault to cabinet’s steering committee, to ensure the West isn’t totally ignored as he sets priorities.
"The more senior you are in cabinet, and the more important cabinet committees you’re on, the greater the breadth of influence you can achieve," he said.
That didn’t come to pass Friday, when Trudeau unveiled the structure of 12 ministerial committees.
Both MPs from the region will, nevertheless, have a voice at the table.
Vandal will chair the reconciliation committee, which could give him powerful backroom input in how Ottawa handles Indigenous affairs. The backroom committees don’t operate on a majority vote, so chairs have more influence than those who lead parliamentary committees that meet in public.
The MP for St. Boniface—St. Vital will also be part of the committees on litigation and managing COVID-19.
A subcommittee on intergovernmental co-ordination includes both Vandal and Boissonnault in its membership of eight ministers; they also each appear on parallel committee aimed at balancing inclusive economic growth and climate change.
Anne McLellan, a former Edmonton MP who served as Liberal deputy prime minister from 2003 to 2006, said both ministers have an impact in government despite not sitting on Trudeau’s front bench. Vandal is northern affairs minister, while Boissonnault is tourism minister and assistant finance minister.
"(The phrase) ‘junior ministers’ downplays their real status and their likely contribution… on behalf of the region," she told the Free Press.
Yet McLellan did have concerns about Carr no longer serving in cabinet, after having formed relationships with the Alberta government and numerous industries.
"It’s a disappointment. Jim represented the Prairies well in cabinet, and I know, because I dealt with him in his office on a regular basis," she said. "In his own quiet, thoughtful way (he) built bridges."
Trudeau’s cabinet-committee picks came days after the NDP berated the Liberals for allocating COVID-19 cash to all seven granting agencies except the one representing the Prairies, according to supplementary estimates tabled Nov. 26.
Last Friday, Vandal told the House of Commons the PrairiesCan agency will be spending $360 million "to address the unique needs of the Prairies and focus on local priorities."
Later that day, Trudeau announced two Winnipeg MPs will retain the posts they held before the September election.
Winnipeg North MP Kevin Lamoureux remains parliamentary secretary to the House leader, and Terry Duguid keeps his role as parliamentary secretary to the environment minister.
Parliamentary bureau chief
In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"