POLITICS

Trudeau's Parliamentary Secretaries To Be Charged With Policy Files

11/30/2015 10:54 EST | Updated 12/02/2015 04:59 EST

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will appoint his parliamentary secretaries in the next day or two, The Huffington Post Canada has learned.

Parliamentary secretaries resemble junior cabinet ministers, but they traditionally don't attend cabinet meetings and they have no managerial responsibilities over departments. They mostly answer questions on behalf of their minister when he or she is not in the House.

This time, however, some parliamentary secretaries will be charged with actual policy files.

UPDATE - Dec. 2, 2015: Trudeau’s parliamentary secretary on infrastructure, for example, Adam Vaughan, will be tasked with building a stronger relationship with cities focused on delivering housing and infrastructure spending.

justin trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau laughs as he speaks to reporters on Parliament Hill. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)

The job of parliamentary secretary comes with a $16,600 pay bump on top of the $167,400 salary of an MP. Traditionally, parliamentary secretaries have also been charged with guiding legislation through the Commons committee where study by opposition MPs could derail the government's agenda.

During this fall's election, however, Trudeau promised that the House of Commons' committees would be more independent. He said he would ensure that committees would have proper resources as well as the ability to provide reliable nonpartisan research.

Trudeau also pledged that committee chairs would be selected through secret ballot — a promise that also includes vice-chairs, according to new government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc. The Liberals also said they would "change the rules" so that ministers and parliamentary secretaries no longer have a vote on committees — another measure designed to ensure more independence. Whether parliamentary secretaries will sit on committees is unclear. The Prime Minister's Office did not respond to a request for comment.

dominic leblanc

Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc speaks to reporters on Parliament Hill. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Familiar names left out

One individual who will become a new parliamentary secretaries told HuffPost he's not sure what he's actually going to be doing and whether he will be sitting on a committee. Nevertheless, the appointment is a nod of confidence and often seen as a stepping stone to become a full minister.

Another Liberal source cautioned that there might be several familiar names left off the list of appointees this week. The PMO is hoping that some who are left off the list will be elected committee chairs, including the chair of the soon-to-be struck national security committee — the oversight body the Liberals promised as a response to the concerns over increased sharing of information by security agencies in Bill C-51.

Depending on the committee, the chair could be more important and influential than many parliamentary secretaries.

House Speaker to be chosen

After the parliamentary secretaries are announced, either Tuesday or Wednesday, the real business of the 42nd Parliament will commence with the election, by secret preferential ballot, of the Speaker of the Commons.

Three Liberal MPs — Geoff Regan, Denis Paradis and Yasmin Ratansi – and Conservative Bruce Stanton are publicly vying for the job. On Monday, one of the perceived front-runners, Ottawa-area MP Mauril Bélanger pulled his name out of the race after he was diagnosed with ALS.

Friday, the Governor General will read the speech from the throne, a blueprint of the Liberal government's agenda this coming session.

Next week, MPs will sit for five days before heading back to their ridings for the Christmas break. LeBlanc told HuffPost the calendar had been set last June and he didn't want to spend one day debating extending the sitting for something that the Liberals viewed as "acceptable."

LeBlanc's two priorities that week will be to present and, hopefully, he said, approve, the supplementary estimates, which will include the government's detailed spending plan on the Syrian refugee resettlement. The Liberals will also table a ways and means motion, most likely on Wednesday, that will pave the way for the Canada Revenue Agency to begin implementing the government's middle-income tax cut and the corresponding income tax increase on those earning more than $200,000 a year, so that it can come into effect in January 2016.

What about the Senate?

The Liberals still have to deal, however, with the thorny issue of what to do with the Senate. Trudeau cannot pass the supplementary estimates without the cooperation of the upper chamber, LeBlanc acknowledged.

Right now, the Conservatives have a majority in the Senate and the unaffiliated Liberals are unclear what role they are expected to play. Trudeau kicked them out of his caucus in January 2014 to show that he was serious about reforming the upper house.

The Senate's rules and functions, however, are based on a two-party system with a government and opposition structure. The leader of the government in the Senate, for example, is charged with shepherding its legislation through the Senate. He or she also answers questions on behalf of the government during a daily question period — something that cannot happen without at least one government representative in the chamber.

LeBlanc said the government wants to develop a new relationship with the Senate, one in which the chamber is less partisan and more independent. He said he would be asking the Senate leadership to look at ways they could review their own rules to see if their own structures could be less of a mirror of the House of Commons. A group of senators, including Quebec Liberal Paul Massicotte, are already doing just that.

"We really sense a desire to have a much more constructive and less partisan beginning to the new parliament."

"It is not our intention to whip or to try to encourage whip votes. We hope that senators will be much freer on how they vote on legislation," LeBlanc told HuffPost. "However, we recognize that under the current Senate rules, including the Parliament of Canada Act, there are a number of functions that are set up in order to facilitate the legislative process. So it's our intention to announce in the coming days how we will approach those particular roles."

LeBlanc would not say what he planned to do, or whether an interim solution would be found to allow the government to appoint someone to shepherd the Liberals' bills in the upper house.

"We've said that we are not in a rush to appoint 22," he said.

Trudeau promised during the campaign that he would create a non-partisan merit-based process to advise the prime minister on Senate appointments. There are currently 22 vacancies.

A more collegial approach

The Liberals also plan to make several changes to the way the House of Commons operates.

LeBlanc said they want to make the House more family friendly. Some suggestions tossed around are getting rid of Friday sittings, starting the day earlier, at 9 a.m. instead of 10 a.m., and getting rid of late evening votes. LeBlanc said he had been working with NDP House Leader Peter Julian. The Liberals also said they want to change question period — dedicating a full session each week to the prime minister's answering questions.

dominic leblanc

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau congratulates Dominic LeBlanc as he is sworn in as the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

"We certainly believe that there is a desire, certainly from the people that we have spoken to from the opposition parties, to build a much more collegial, a much more constructive approach to things like question period and to work in committees," LeBlanc said. "We really sense a desire to have a much more constructive and less partisan beginning to the new parliament."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that parliamentary secretaries would be appointed to represent different regional development agencies. Inaccurate formation was provided by several official government sources.

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