A former member of Stephen Harper’s transition team goes through some of the priorities that the group helps the leader sort out before the swearing in.

Picking a cabinet, settling on a governing style, liaising with the public service and staffing political offices – these are just some of the many decisions and tasks that premier-designate Doug Ford is in the process of sorting out with the help of his transition team. Together they will set the course of the new government.

I was part of a transition team for the Conservative government in 2006. On a frosty day in February of that year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his newly appointed cabinet gathered at the government residence at Meech Lake for their first ever retreat. They didn’t know how long their government would last – it could be anywhere from nine months to a year.

The transition team had constructed a briefing session for the new cabinet that covered several key areas. We talked about the responsibilities of ministers, and how they should interact with the media and the bureaucracy. We also led a discussion on the new government’s policy directions, and how they would shape the Throne Speech and the economic statement.

The mood of the gathering was equal parts excitement and trepidation, given the government’s minority status.

During that first cabinet meeting, Harper set the tone for his government. He reminded his cabinet that he was the boss, and that the Prime Minister’s Office was the government control centre. Emphasizing the importance of a command-and-control style of government was required, given the minority status. It also clearly sent a message – check with my office before you announce any decisions, and never put the PM at risk.

Deciding the governing style for a new prime minister or premier is not an easy decision. It is largely dependent on considerations such as the electoral majority, experience in governing, and the caucus colleagues who can implement the new government’s mandate.

Selecting a cabinet

Most transition team alumni would agree that cabinet selection is the first priority they assist the leader with. With a host of capable candidates who have varied political and business experience, Ford has a roster of individuals to consider while also balancing ethnicity, gender, regional representation and experience.

Most of us are anxious during a job interview. It is only natural. But for those newly elected Conservative MPP’s meeting with Ford as he interviews and selects his cabinet, there are a number of other considerations.

When asked if there is anything the premier should know that would prevent their candidacy as a Minister of the Crown, they must be 100 percent truthful. Otherwise the required security check will uncover discrepancies that might affect their credibility. They must listen carefully to the direction the premier will outline regarding what their new boss wants them to achieve. These mandate discussions between the premier and a new minister are pivotal to the direction of the new government. And they must treat the conversation with the utmost secrecy until the announcement and swearing in on June 29th. To do otherwise would breach the confidential nature of the cabinet selection process, and could result in their name not making the final list.

One of my fond memories is of a situation involving respect for cabinet selection secrecy that has become legendary among my political friends in Ottawa. I worked as chief of staff to minister Barbara McDougall in the Mulroney government. She was to be promoted in a cabinet shuffle. Coincidentally, we were about to go to Israel for an official government visit at about the time. Knowing we had to be at the governor general’s residence for the swearing in, we cancelled the trip and retreated to a cottage in order not to be seen or subjects of rumors in the pending shuffle.

Setting platform promises into action

The second priority for the transition team, working together with the professional public service, is to take decisions on the various campaign promises and triage which ones require immediate action. Here the public service is a huge asset to any incoming government. They will have been following and analyzing all of the party platforms and will have briefings prepared on how to make the campaign commitments happen.

In addition, Doug Ford’s transition team must decide on machinery changes – changes to the internal processes associated with the management of government, and what is their short- and medium-term deliverable to ensure the government’s “For the People” mandate is achieved.

We have seen early decisions already taken by Ford, including ending the province’s cap-and-trade system for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. He has also made clear he expects expenditure restraint within the public service and for MPPs. He has definitively signaled he will move on his platform commitments.

Hiring a team

The third priority for the transition team is hiring personnel – political staff and appointments. For Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his desire for gender balance was prominent in his cabinet selection, but also in all of his political appointments. An increasing number of women took Governor in Council appointments.

Choosing the political staff to run the premier’s office and to work with the public service is critical. While the campaign team were instrumental in the political achievement, the practice of governance requires additional, and at times different, types of skills.

Of course, these are just a few of the priorities of the transition team, as the daily news cycle continues to evolve and various levels of government ask for early signals on pending decisions. For those on the transition team, it is a full-on campaign to get to swearing-in day. For most, their service will be acknowledged and they will carry on with their other day jobs. All in, a peaceful transition from one political party to another to form government should be celebrated. It is a fulfilment of democracy.

Photo: Ontario premier-designate Doug Ford smiles as he enters the room to speak with the media in Toronto after winning the Ontario provincial election, on June 8, 2018. The Canadian Press, by Nathan Denette.


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