OTTAWA — Perhaps Heather McPherson should keep her phone close and charged.
The new NDP MP for Edmonton–Strathcona is the only non-Conservative elected to the House of Commons Monday from the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border to the Okanagan — and that might make her candidate No. 1 for a cabinet position.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saw his Liberals wiped out in Saskatchewan, where party stalwart Ralph Goodale’s 31-year Commons career came to a close, and in Alberta, where four seats won in 2015 returned to the Tories, two in Edmonton and two in Calgary.
As Trudeau prepares to announce his cabinet on Nov. 20, the prime minister acknowledged that he is grappling with a problem of representation. Cabinets typically include representation from each province — at the very least, every region.
Watch: Trudeau to Albertans: ‘Ottawa will always have your back’
“I think any government needs to make sure that it is hearing from every corner of the country, and not all governments in history have had representations from every corner of the country,” he said in his first press conference after his government’s re-election. “There have been different approaches taken. I’m going to be reflective on how we move forward in the right way.”
The Liberal leader said it is “extremely important” to him that the government work for all Canadians.
“... as I have endeavoured to do over the past years, and as I will do even more now deliberately, I will be reaching out to leaders across the country, reaching out specifically to westerners to hear from them.”
Trudeau spoke with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. He said he plans to reach out to others to ensure that the very real concerns of Albertans are “being addressed and reflected by this government.
“This is something that I take very seriously … and I will be listening and working with a broad range of people to ensure that that happens,” he said Wednesday.
He also said he will continue to go to Alberta and Saskatchewan as often as he can to listen, engage and work. “We’re going to continue to make sure that every part of this country sees its priorities reflected on what this government does, even if we don’t have members of the government elected in those regions,” he said.
While Trudeau didn’t rule anything out or in, here are a few ways he might seek more Prairie representation, without just handing over the files for the region to a B.C. or Manitoba cabinet minister:
1) Appoint NDP MP Heather McPherson
Trudeau could appoint McPherson to the cabinet. During the election campaign, McPherson described herself as a “progressive” and urged voters to support her to ensure the riding didn’t go to the Conservatives. In that vein, she followed the same strategy as the previous NDP incumbent, Linda Duncan, who received support from Liberal voters in the riding to ensure the constituency remained centre-left.
Trudeau would not be the first prime minister to appoint someone from another party. Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper named former Liberal cabinet minister David Emerson to his cabinet in 2006. Emerson, however, faced stiff backlash in his Vancouver Kingsway, usually a left-of-centre, riding. He did not run again in 2008, and the riding has been held by the NDP since then.
2) Appoint a senator
While Trudeau established an arms-length appointment process to ensure a less partisan Senate, he could argue that exceptional circumstances require exceptions to the rules.
Trudeau could appointment someone already in the Senate.
His father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, looked to the Senate several times to fill his cabinet ranks, including after the 1980 election, which left the Liberals without any representation from British Columbia, Alberta or Saskatchewan. A former leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, a precursor to the NDP, Saskatchewan’s Hazen Argue served as minister of state for the Canadian Wheat Board; while Vancouver’s Jack Austin, Trudeau’s former chief of staff who was appointed to the Senate in 1975, was named minister of state for social development in 1981.
If Trudeau is open to appointing a senior, there are several possible options.
- Alberta Sen. Grant Mitchell used to caucus with the Liberals and is now a “non-affiliated” member. His title is Senate liaison, but in practicality he serves a role much like that of a government whip. He is one of three senators who helps ensure the passage of the Trudeau government’s agenda.
- Alberta Sen. Paula Simons could also be considered. The former journalist is part of the Independent Senators Group and may not want to join the government’s cabinet, but she is probably among the most Trudeau-friendly potential appointments. (The others are pretty staunch Conservatives).
- Saskatchewan Sen. Lilian Dyck would not be able to go toe-to-toe with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, but she could offer representation in the one province that shut out the Liberals. She still caucuses with the Senate Liberals. (Liberal senators are not allowed to attend Trudeau’s caucus, which he made open to only MPs in 2014).
Trudeau could also appoint a new senator. There is currently a vacancy from Saskatchewan. If you’re thinking of Goodale, he already said no.
3) Appoint someone to a cabinet committee
Thinking outside the box, Trudeau could potentially appoint a Privy Council member to sit on a cabinet committee. Perhaps, Rona Ambrose, former interim Conservative leader and former Harper-era cabinet minister, for example, could sit on one or several relevant cabinet committees, such as trade diversification or environment and clean growth, to ensure western representation.
4) Appoint someone to cabinet that is not a senator or a member of Parliament
Yup. This could be a possibility.
Stéphane Dion was a political science professor when then-prime minister Jean Chrétien named him intergovernmental affairs minister in 1996. However, Dion was already set to run in a byelection months later in traditionally safe Liberal riding. There are no byelections on the horizon in Alberta or Saskatchewan and no safe Liberal seats in the region.
5) Appoint an advisory or consultation panel
Trudeau could replicate the NAFTA advisory council, which included representation from the centre-right — Ambrose and former Harper cabinet minister James Moore — to help guide the government’s negotiations and ensure buy-in from valuable communities and stakeholders.
Trudeau could include friendly mayors, business leaders, union representation — anyone who could serve as a sounding board but also help legitimize his decision-making in the press and act as a spokesperson for the government in the media.
6) Add Western voices to his inner circle
The Prime Minister’s Office has some, but not many, staff members from the Prairies, or even from B.C. A high-profile Albertan or Saskatchewanian, could be appointed as principal secretary. The post is vacant, as Gerald Butts is not expected to return to the PMO.
Even without that high-profile job, other voices could easily be added to ensure more perspectives in decision-making. Trudeau’s father appointed Albertan Jim Coutts to be his principal secretary from 1975 to 1981.