Not long before he won the 2006 election, Stephen Harper talked about how Conservatives’ power would be held in check by all the Liberal-laden institutions in Ottawa.
A decade later, with Liberals in power, those same institutions — and more — are in the midst of a major changing of the guard.
"The reality is that we will have, for some time to come, a Liberal Senate, a Liberal civil service — at least at the senior levels where they've been appointed by the Liberals — and courts that have been appointed by the Liberals,” Harper told reporters in the final days of the election campaign that spanned late 2005 to early 2006.
At the time, some read those remarks as a reassurance to Conservative-wary voters in Canada. Others saw it as a warning of stormy days to come between any new Harper government and all those institutions the prime minister saw as enemy territory.
They might have been both.
Harper managed to win a minority government shortly after he uttered those words, ushering in a decade that often saw Conservatives in pitched battle with federal institutions.
That famously included a potentially tense standoff with then-governor general Michaëlle Jean during the “coalition crisis” of 2009 and a battle with the Supreme Court of Canada in 2014. Justin Trudeau, on the other hand, arrived in office with far fewer suspicions about the dice being loaded against him, institution-wise.
Or if he did, Trudeau didn’t share them. This was a prime minister, it was believed, who would not be framing his government as outsiders to power or opponents of the public service, the governor general or the Supreme Court.
Yet, it will be under Trudeau that Canada sees a huge and widespread turnover at the top of institutional power in Ottawa — a sea change that Harper might have only dreamt about a decade ago.
By the end of the summer, Canada should have a new governor general, as the term extension for David Johnston expires in September and a replacement could be appointed as soon as this month. And, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin will be gone from the Supreme Court by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, the Senate is still transforming, moving clout away from partisans and toward the raft of new “independent senators” being named at arm’s length from the Trudeau PMO.
Oh, and as it happens, the RCMP needs a new commissioner to replace the outgoing Robert Paulson.
Meanwhile, the Liberals are already behind in filling current and imminent vacancies across the board in some of the most senior watchdog jobs in the public service. Once his government gets its hiring act together, Trudeau should soon have new people in the significant positions of chief electoral officer, official languages commissioner, the commissioners for ethics and lobbying, as well as a new head of the CBC.
Close watchers of politics will note that all of these above positions, at one time or another over the past decade, were seen as challengers to Harper’s authority.
Imagine, though, if the fates had collided similarly for Harper, allowing him to replace all those who were in a position to judge him, his ministers or how the Conservatives were governing. You can almost guarantee that Harper would have faced accusations that he was trying to remake Canada in a more Conservative image — painting a big swath of blue across the red-and-white flag.
However, it’s now Trudeau’s turn to install people in the top jobs all across the board in Canada. Even if this prime minister does only serve one term (that doesn’t happen often in Canada; most get a second election at the least), many of Trudeau’s appointees for those jobs will linger well past the 2019 election.
Governors general, for instance, are usually installed at Rideau Hall for four years or longer. Beverley McLachlin has been the chief justice for nearly 20 years.
Conservatives, ironically, may see this massive changing of the guard in Canada as business as usual in the long view of this country’s political history. Once again, as they did through much of the 20th century, Liberals are presiding over appointments all over official Ottawa, ensuring a Liberal bent to how the country is run.
Who knows? In the near or more distant future, yet another Conservative leader may reassure (or warn) Canadians that Ottawa is run by friends of Trudeau. Certainly, that hiring power is in the prime minister’s hands, in a large way, this year.
Susan Delacourt is an Ottawa-based political author and columnist who has been working on Parliament Hill for nearly 30 years. She is a frequent political panellist on national television and author of four books. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.