Michael Den Tandt: As Immigration Minister, John McCallum will set tone for Liberals’ early trajectory

, the 65-year old former defence minister and chief economist for the Royal Bank, is the man on point – charged with the hugely challenging, logistically fraught, politically tendentious job of bringing 25,000 refugees from the Syrian civil war to this country by year’s end.

In a day of firsts, filled with surprises, that was among the biggest; for McCallum, who’d been left out of much of the pre-cabinet speculation, now becomes perhaps the most important figure, other than Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself, in determining this government’s early trajectory.

That’s because, contrary to much speculation and some remonstrations over the past two weeks, the Trudeau government intends to move immediately to begin organizing the refugee rescue and has every intention of delivering on its campaign promise, with proper security, health and other safeguards in place, by early next year. McCallum, as Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenzhip, can be expected to work closely with Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, and International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, among several others, to bring this about.

In remarks to reporters Wednesday afternoon McCallum reiterated the government’s intention to meet its objective, adding that he intends to reach out to other levels of government, including municipalities, as well as non-governmental organizations, for help in effecting the refugee rescue. “I expect there will be a deep reservoir of people who want to help,” he said.

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In Ottawa, meantime, the House of Commons will reconvene in early December, with Trudeau’s promised middle-class tax cut as the first order of business. Bill Morneau, the former C.D. Howe Institute Chair, is the Finance Minister charged with bringing that about. Veteran Liberal Scott Brison, meantime, gets the less glamourous post of President of the Treasury Board.

Left out of cabinet, in what has to count among the day’s least expected developments, was retired general Andrew Leslie – a former commander of the Army and vaunted star candidate since his high-profile recruitment by Trudeau in September of 2013. Also relegated to the back benches were former Toronto police chief Bill Blair, and high-profile Toronto-area progressive politician Adam Vaughan. Former astronaut and Liberal leadership candidate Marc Garneau, who’d been considered a shoo-in for Foreign Affairs, Defence or International Trade, received the mid-level post of Transport.

Meantime, vaulting into some of the most senior jobs in Canadian government, are relative newcomers Chrystia Freeland, at International Trade; Jody Wilson-Raybould, as Minister of Justice and Attorney-General; Jane Philpott, as Health Minister; Bibeau, at International Development; Catherine McKenna, as Minister of Environment and Climate Change, and Diane Lebouthillier as Minister of National Revenue.

Dion’s elevation as Minister of Foreign Affairs marks a major career turnabout for the former Liberal leader, who led the party to defeat in 2008 on a plan to impose a carbon tax. Dion now assumes the highest-profile post in the government, aside from the prime ministership itself. He also heads the cabinet committee on the environment.

There are 16 men in cabinet, including Trudeau, and 15 women – fulfilling a Liberal promise of gender parity among his ministers. Visible minorities figure prominently, including figures such as Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, Amarjeet Sohi, Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, and Bardish Chagger, Minister of Small Business and Tourism.

Asked to explain the composition of his cabinet outside Rideau Hall, shortly after the swearing-in, Trudeau said simply: “It’s 2015.” He added that he wanted the cabinet to look like the country. The PM made a point of taking questions from reporters after the swearing in, and briefly reiterated some of his main themes from the campaign trail; openness, transparency, accountability. He also stressed that the new government will operate collegially. Trudeau raised expectations on this front during the campaign; if anything, those expectations will now be even higher.

Even the ceremonial aspect was different, and deliberately so: The public was invited inside the gates of Rideau Hall to watch as Trudeau and his new ministers arrived, and then left, after they were sworn in. The crowd, three or four deep and stretching perhaps 500 metres back from the main building, cheered as the ministers were announced. The unusually balmy, sunny weather likely contributed to their mood.

Wednesday afternoon, Trudeau met for the first time with his assembled cabinet. The ministers later emerged to take questions from reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons – a marked change from the scant media availabilities of the Harper years.

About Michael Den Tandt