Liberal Staff Turnover an Issue to Watch

August 9, 2019

Entering the 2015 federal election the Liberals were running a relatively thin bench in Ottawa. After nine years of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and with only 34 Liberal MPs in the House of Commons, many of the ‘Liberal lifers’ had moved on to corporate or provincial government jobs scattered across the country.

But then the Liberals won. They very quickly had to staff up while staying true to the new identity of the party. Hope and change. Youth and vigour. Sunny ways. It was, after all, 2015.

It took the Liberals longer to fill positions than many on the outside had expected. Most Ministerial offices were still running skeleton staff well into 2016. And they seemed to be avoiding counsel from the old guard that had served under Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, opting instead to drive the agenda from the core group of advisors around the new Prime Minister – Gerry Butts, Katie Telford, Mike McNair, Kate Purchase and a small handful of other trusted advisors, most of whom knew each other from years working together in the Ontario Legislature.

Naturally there were missteps. There was a sense in the Ottawa policy bubble that the Government was out over its skis in terms of delivering on the sweeping promises it made during the 2015 campaign. The notion of balanced budgets was quickly walked back, as was electoral reform. Prime Minister Trudeau got off on the wrong foot with China early in his mandate by pushing a progressive trade strategy that was utterly dismissed. The India trip was also a complete flop – a failure of both communications and substance. And, of course, the most obvious example of poor issues management and advice at the top remains the SNC-Lavalin affair.

But there have been wins too, made possible in part by adept operating at the staff level. The Government has been quite bold in implementing its progressive agenda, ushering in a national carbon price and expanding social programs. On defending Canada’s interests, the ‘Team Canada’ approach to negotiating NAFTA has generally been viewed as successful.

The election campaign will reveal the true extent of Team Trudeau’s success at maturing into a well-oiled machine, but four years of experience in Government counts. Four years in the PMO or a Minister’s office is like a decade of experience anywhere else. Four years under the belt has got to count for something.

It must be somewhat concerning to the Government, then, to see good people move on.

Earlier this week Canada’s Ambassador to the United Stated, David MacNaughton, announced he will be stepping down. Ambassador MacNaughton, a long-time Liberal, was key to the Party’s success in Ontario in 2015. Appointed to the role in 2016, he has been a steadfast hand on the tiller, navigating the fraught waters of President Trump’s Washington.

Gerry Butts, too, has seen his role change in recent month, driven from his role as Principal Secretary amidst the SNC-Lavalin scandal. He will advise the upcoming campaign – and clearly remains very close to the centre of power - but it is hard to imagine that he will reappear following the election in an official senior role should the Liberals win. In the meantime, the Principal Secretary role remains vacant, though Ben Chin, formerly Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s Chief of Staff, has moved over to the PMO as a (very) senior advisor.  

Other staffers, too, have announced their intentions to move on in recent weeks. Senior staff to Minister Champagne, Minister Bains, Minister Murray, Minister Sohi and others have signalled a return to the private sector.  

Some, including Ambassador MacNaughton, have said they will advise the Liberals in the upcoming campaign. And, of course, winning the election is job #1. Some attention, however, must be paid to the orderly transition into a second mandate, should the electoral dominoes fall that way.

The fresh-faced Liberals have largely outlasted their first-term missteps; today they are running neck-and-neck for the lead in the polls with the Conservatives while the NDP lags far behind. Should they win a second mandate they can expect to be held to a higher standard. Retaining good staff and recruiting fresh talent will be critical.