On Nov. 13, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did something no head of Canada’s federal government has ever done: release the mandate letters given to every minister outlining expectations and government priorities for his portfolio. The move provides an insight into the government’s agenda and it was applauded by many in the media as a victory for accountable and transparent government.
About 80 per cent of every letter is identical, with boilerplate on expectations that ministers be “honest, open, and sincere” as they work with each other and other levels of government, and that they work to fulfill the Liberal Party platform items and the campaign promise to bring a new tone to government. Trudeau told every minister, “we will be a government that governs for all Canadians, and I expect you, in your work, to bring Canadians together.” He also said ministers will help the Liberal government “fulfill our promises while living within our fiscal plan.”
Each minister is then provided a list of “top priorities” for which they are expected to “work with … colleagues and through established legislative, regulatory, and Cabinet processes,” to enact. At this point, each minister is assigned specific responsibilities.
The Justice Minister, Joy Wilson-Raybould, was told to “lead a process, supported by the Health Minister, to work with the provinces and territories to respond to the Supreme Court decision regarding physician-assisted death.” Interestingly, no such mandate was given to Health Minister Joy Philpott to address assisted-suicide, although both were instructed to work with the Minister of Public Safety, Ralph Goodale, to legalize and regulate marijuana.
The letter sent to Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister of International Development and La Francophonie, instructed her to close “existing gaps in reproductive rights and health care for women” in maternal, newborn and child health initiatives abroad. This is code for taxpayer funding of overseas abortions and contraception. Trudeau also directed Bibeau to implement the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development agenda that includes reproductive and sexual rights.
Mélanie Joly, the Minister of Heritage, was directed to work with the Minister of Justice to “update and reinstate a Court Challenges Program,” that before the Harper government funded special-interest groups to pursue Charter challenges to overturn Canadian laws. Critics of the previous CCP such as REAL Women’s Gwen Landolt say the program invites activist judges to use the Charter of Rights to create law from the bench rather than defer to the wishes of Parliament.
Jean-Yves Duclos, the new Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, was directed to work with provinces, territories, and First Nations “on a National Early Learning and Childcare Framework as a first step towards delivering affordable, high-quality, flexible and fully inclusive child care.” He was also told to design and implement, along with the Finance Minister Bill Morneau, the Canada Child Benefit that will expand and replace the Conservatives’ Universal Child Care Benefit. Interestingly, as an economist before getting elected on Oct. 19, Duclos defended the Harper government’s UCCB as an effective and efficient support for families.
Duclos was also asked to “fulfill our promise to provide more generous and flexible leave for caregivers and more flexible parental leave,” by working with MaryAnn Mihychuk, the Minister of Employment and Labour. This is generally considered a family friendly policy for the “sandwich generation” of adults who care for both their parents and their own children.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau has the most ambitious agenda to fulfill, including tax cuts for the middle class, increasing taxes on those making more than $200,000, expanding numerous programs, and restoring a balanced budget by 2019. Notably there is no mention of limiting deficits to $10 billion per year, as Trudeau promised on the campaign trail. Of concern in Morneau’s mandate letter is Trudeau instruction to “cancel income splitting” for families with children under 18 at home, reversing the Harper government’s plan to eliminate the so-called marriage penalty in the income tax system that effectively taxes households with a stay-at-home spouse higher than households with similar incomes and both parents working.
Just because a policy was not addressed in the ministerial mandate letters does not mean that a cabinet minister will not push legislative or regulatory changes. Despite no mention of abortion in the letter to the Health Minister, Philpott went public saying the government would expand abortion services throughout Canada.
Jim Hughes, national president of Campaign Life Coalition, told The Interim that the mandate letters “demonstrate Trudeau is what he illustrated on the campaign trail, a social radical who will promote abortion, euthanasia, legal pot, and national daycare.” He also said that although the letters give a hint of Trudeau’s agenda, they do not provide details on how policies will be pursued or implemented.