Meet the Gurus and Stick Handlers in Trudeau’s Economic Team

  • Canada PM counting on ministers, operatives to execute plan
  • Parliament resumes Monday amid push to reverse flagging growth

One of the bigger surprises of Canada’s election last year was how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wrested the economic agenda from Stephen Harper, the tax-cutting Conservative incumbent, by pledging to put government at the center of reversing the country’s growth downturn.

Whether Trudeau’s Liberals can deliver is still to be determined. As the economic agenda kicks into high gear Monday when Parliament resumes, the team of policy makers, executives and staffers at the center of the prime minister’s strategy is coming together.

Here’s who matters most, and how they’re helping to shape Canada’s economy.

The Principals

Trudeau took a risk appointing Bill Morneau, a rookie lawmaker with no political or party experience, to the No. 2 job in cabinet. Yet, the finance minister, 53, brings one skill in short supply to an inner circle that is heavily tilted to communicators and strategists -- knowing how to manage a large, complex organization.

Bill Morneau

Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

While not an ideologue with an obvious agenda to push, the mild-mannered Morneau didn’t get into politics to tiptoe on policy. Expect bold ideas while he’s at the post.

Gerald Butts, 45, is the prime minister’s principal secretary and one of his closest friends since their McGill University days. He’s also the guardian of the Trudeau brand and a key voice on all major decisions, which puts him aside Morneau among the government’s most influential economic figures. A former chief executive of the World Wildlife Fund Canada, Butts also holds the pen on the government’s environmental agenda, which includes plans for a national carbon price.

With the commodity boom seemingly over, International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland, 48, will play a critical role in developing any long-term growth strategy. Canada, among the global leaders in trade shrinkage over the past 15 years, will need to step up its game. The rise of protectionism in various regions around the world makes Freeland’s job even more challenging.

The Political Stick Handlers

Katie Telford is Trudeau’s chief of staff and the top-ranking woman in a government committed to gender equity -- half the cabinet is women. Telford, 38, and communications director Kate Purchase flank Trudeau on his key trade missions, including recently to China and Japan, where they stood out in crowds nearly all otherwise male. They’re among those leading Trudeau’s 2017 budget process, a document already described as a legacy budget for his government.

Michael McNair, Trudeau’s director of policy, and Robert Asselin, who does the same for Morneau, were members of the prime minister’s inner circle during last year’s election campaign and played key roles developing the campaign platform. Both pragmatists, they now steer policy through the system and in the process can champion or kill initiatives.

McNair, 36, handles a remit that’s larger than economic policy, and often deploys his team -- particularly Justin To, 41, a policy adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office -- to manage the details.

Asselin, 42, is adept at both communications and policy, able to write a speech while providing advice on complex tax issues, and on Quebec. Trudeau’s 40-district breakthrough in the province, Canada’s second-most populous, helped cement his majority.

The Davos Gurus

Morneau’s 14-member Advisory Council on Economic Growth, unveiled in March, is responsible for guiding the finance minister’s efforts to revitalize the economy. Given the recent barrage of grim data, that will require some magic.

Dominic Barton

Photographer: Udit Kulshrestha/Bloomberg

Dominic Barton, 54, the global managing director of consultancy McKinsey & Co., leads the panel and was praised by Trudeau at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The hyper-networked China expert has written extensively about the need to ensure capitalism’s benefits are more widely distributed, making him a perfect fit for Trudeau’s economic narrative.

Michael Sabia, 63, has emerged as one of the stronger players on the panel, which is no surprise since he held senior positions in Ottawa before moving into the corporate world, where he eventually ran the country’s largest telecommunications company before becoming chief executive of Caisse de Depot et Placement du Quebec.

Sabia’s input is taken seriously, particularly on infrastructure, which Trudeau sees as something of a fix-all for Canada’s sluggish growth. The Liberals have pledged a total of C$120 billion ($91 billion) in new projects over 10 years.

The Ministers

Navdeep Bains, a longtime political ally of both Trudeau and Telford, is in charge of the government’s “innovation agenda,” which, while light on substance and funding, is critical to Trudeau’s branding. The Liberals have set themselves the lofty goal of making Canada the “center of global innovation.” But have they oversold it? Bains, 39, must prove there’s a role for government in innovation, a challenge for someone with limited corporate experience. He’s also the point-man on bailout talks with struggling aircraft-maker Bombardier Inc.

Jean-Yves Duclos, 51, is an economist serving as Trudeau’s minister of families. His voice is trusted by Trudeau and McNair as the government looks to overhaul social benefits. One of Trudeau’s first major policy moves was rearranging a series of programs and adding funding to create the Canada Child Benefit, which the government estimates will lift 300,000 kids out of poverty. Duclos’ influence could be short-lived, however; the minister has openly mused about Canada adopting a guaranteed minimum income, a notion toward which Trudeau remains cool.

Catherine McKenna

Photographer: Geoff Robins/AFP via Getty Images

Catherine McKenna and Jim Carr, Trudeau’s ministers of environment and natural resources, are his pipeline lieutenants. The prime minister has promised to protect the environment and at the same time, get more of Canada’s natural resources to market, a tricky agenda. Trudeau hopes to approve at least one pipeline in his first term, and will give McKenna, 45, and Carr, 64, the task of selling the decision to voters who bought into the Liberal Party’s green message.

Immigration Minister John McCallum, 66, is at the center of government efforts to keep the nation’s labor supply growing. That’s important because there are really only three ways to boost long-term growth: increase the number of workers, make workers more productive, or both.

The Bureaucrats

Trudeau recalled Serge Dupont, a former top official in the department of natural resources, from an IMF post to serve as deputy-clerk of the Privy Council’s Office, making him Canada’s second-highest ranking civil servant. Trudeau is said to rely on him heavily. Other influential bureaucrats -- who will become increasingly important in an activist government like Trudeau’s -- include Michael Wernick, clerk of the Privy Council Office, the highest ranking civil servant in government; his presumed heir apparent Matthew Mendelsohn, deputy secretary to the cabinet for the Privy Council Office; and deputy ministers Paul Rochon at finance and Christine Hogan at trade.

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