2023 cabinet picture, https://twitter.com/JustinTrudeau/status/1684289753384996864

2023 cabinet picture, https://twitter.com/JustinTrudeau/status/1684289753384996864


Same as It Ever Was: Cabinet Overhaul Signals Government Doubling Down on Digital Policy Mess

It should not come as a surprise, but those hoping that the government’s much-anticipated cabinet overhaul might signal a potential course-correction on its digital policy mess will be sorely disappointed. If anything, yesterday’s changes at Canadian Heritage and Justice suggest an acceleration of plans that will include continuing to head toward the Bill C-18 cliff of blocked news links as well as introducing controversial online harms legislation and perhaps even copyright reform. Pascale St-Onge, the new Heritage Minister, was a lobbyist in the culture sector before her election to the House of Commons and is likely to welcome the big tech battle, while removing David Lametti as Justice Minister and replacing him with Arif Virani means online harms loses an important voice for freedom of expression in favour of someone who has expressed impatience with delays in new regulations.

Given how outspoken Prime Minister Trudeau has been on Bills C-11 and C-18, whether the Canadian Heritage Minister is Melanie Joly, Steven Guilbeault, Pablo Rodriguez, or now St-Onge, the commonality (aside from being a job for which only Quebec MPs need apply) is that Heritage policy is driven by the centre. Canadian Heritage Ministers in particular appear to be judged primarily on whether they deliver on the PMO policy and keep Quebec happy. Do that and promotions await: Joly’s difficult stint at Heritage leading not to a Mendicino-style removal but rather to a rehabilitation opportunity followed by a major promotion to Global Affairs, Guilbeault’s embarrassing performance on Bill C-10 leading to a promotion to Environment and Climate Change, and Rodriguez parlaying months of gaslighting on the digital bills into a promotion to Transport that leaves the Bill C-18 quagmire and likely backlash over online harms to someone else.

Changing Heritage Ministers might have provided the chance for a reset in the tensions between Facebook and Google over the bill’s approach of mandated payments for links. Indeed, as the reality of the harms from Bill C-18 have become more apparent, previous supporters of the bill are now touting compromise positions. Most suggestions have no chance of coming to fruition as this government is not going to stop the CBC from lining up to receive millions in tech money and a fund model (which I’ve also recommended) only works if the legislation treats it as sufficient to avoid final offer arbitration, not as voluntary contributions that do not address the Bill C-18 risks. That leaves the most dangerous yet obvious approach: government allocating hundreds of millions in public money to the media sector to make up for its blunder when the losses from its epic miscalculation pile up. Creating a scenario where the combination of government tax credits and direct grants cover half or more of news costs is neither sustainable nor supportive of an independent press, yet one can sense the memos being drafted for the next budget cycle.

Not only is St-Onge likely to continue down the same path on Bill C-18, but her mandate letter will undoubtedly also call for her to lead on online harms (or online safety) legislation and to work with ISED on copyright reform. The online harms package has long been viewed as the most controversial of the government’s three-part digital regulation plan (yes, even more than Bills C-11 and C-18). The new Justice Minister Virani played the lead role on online harms consultation in 2020 on behalf of Lametti, leading to the 2021 consultation package that was criticized by 90% of Canadians who responded (full disclosure: I had a call with Virani as part of his consultation in August 2020).  Sorting out competing departmental views as between Heritage, ISED, Public Safety and Justice on online harms has always been challenging, but Justice is now led by someone both deeply familiar with the issue and likely to support a more aggressive approach. In other words, the messengers may have changed with yesterday’s cabinet changes, but the digital policies remain very much the same.


  1. I have seen a lot of arguments that pretty much all policy is driven from the center. Rather than government by Cabinet as I recall the PM saying back in 2015, we seem to have moved even further towards the government by PMO than we had under previous governments. If the role of the Cabinet ministers is to provide advice to the PM then I don’t believe that as Canadians we are being well served by the makeup of Cabinet; the number of former activists and lobbyists in Cabinet raises some red flags for me… As a adviser I would expect them to provide advice which presents both the pros and cons of courses of action… However lobbyists, and especially activists, are more prone to providing advice which minimizes the costs while overestimating the benefits of a course of action they support, and the reverse if they don’t support it.

    While there is some merit in having someone who is intimately involved with the field in the Minister position for that portfolio, that is not always the case. Remember when BGen (ret’d) Gordon O’Connor was Minister of National Defence from 2005 to 2007?

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    • I’m not sure of the extent to which the Ministers even provide advice anymore.

      Cabinet Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff don’t report to the Minister anymore; they report to the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff in the PMO (i.e., Telford). Deputy Ministers also don’t report to their Minister; they report to the PCO. Everyone reports to the Centre.

      It seems like Ministers are very often cut out of the loop about the operations of their own ministries. (Hence all the “I didn’t check my email” scandals.) And why would the Centre need advice from uninformed ministers who’ve only been on their portfolio for <2 years, when they can contact the deputy minister who has actual expertise.

      Trudeau's "leadership" style is also pretty questionable. Supposedly he refuses to meet with ministers one-on-one… His staffers and their staffers both need to be present. (Probably because they're the only ones who really know what's going on?) At one point (pre-Joly), he supposedly went more than a year without meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs. I doubt that dissenting opinions are expressed much in Trudeau's presence.

      It seems like all of Trudeau's policy ideas come from Katie Telford and Gerry Butts taking notes while watching John Oliver.

      • Yeah, Ministers seem to be there in order to fall on their swords for screwups at the PMO. Of course, this is nothing new, it just seems to be worse now.

        As far as “leadership” style, I have to agree. It seems to be a combination of coming up with lofty ideas, giving orders to “make it so”, and leaving the details of implementation and dealing with the fallout to others; for instance, the increase in immigration comes with a need to provide housing, health care, etc, to the people coming in. However those impacts are left to the provinces who seem to have no input to immigration levels.

        • Fortinbras says:

          Thank you Kevin and Bobazoo for your comments which are much more informative than Michael Geist’s post…

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  3. C-18 reminds me on how disconnected our lawmakers are from the rest of the people imo(same was with firearms ban recently, it hit regular folks pretty hard imo. I’ve used to travel to states and pick up some guns at the shows for half the price usually. Well, can’t anymore. Can’t even buy it properly half of the time). It’s going to hit small businesses so hard…