A Profile: Karina Gould – Minister of Democratic Institutions

What may have flown under your radar with all of the Trump-trumps-Trump rhetoric that has dominated the news over the past two months, is that Justin Trudeau’s January cabinet shuffle resulted in the appointment of the youngest female cabinet minister in Canadian history: 29 year-old Karina Gould. As the recently appointed Minister for Democratic Institutions, Ms. Gould succeeds now Minister of Status of Women in Canada, Maryam Monsef, and was previously serving as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Development and La Francophonie. While her age, education and experience are all noteworthy – she boasts an undergraduate degree from McGill University and a Masters in International Relations from Oxford – the mandate she has inherited is even more so. The revised mandate for the Minister of Democratic Institutions was released on Wednesday, February 1st, and its most controversial component was an explicit statement that “changing the electoral system” would not be part of it.

In addition to this incredibly contentious omission, Ms. Gould’s mandate includes the following new directives:

  • To lead the Government’s efforts to defend the Canadian electoral system from cyber threats; and
  • To provide enhanced transparency for political fundraisers by introducing legislation to that will provide more public disclosure.

Her instructions from the PM also keep three promises that were included in the original mandate:

  • To create an independent commissioner for future political leaders’ debates;
  • To review and propose changes to third party political spending; and
  • To help with a review of the Access to Information Act.

For a rookie MP and Cabinet Minister, this mandate, and the changes to it which she has inherited, and subsequently been required to address, is incredibly challenging. They involve two of the most heated issues that the Liberal government has faced to date: accusations surrounding ‘cash-for-access’ fundraisers and a failed promise at electoral reform. So how has Ms. Gould dealt with these issues thus far?

Let’s start with ‘cash-for-access’ and Ms. Gould’s mandate to “enhance transparency” in future political fundraisers. In late January, days before Parliament resumed, the Liberal government promised to introduce legislation that would require “greater public reporting about political fundraisers.” (CP). “The legislation would force cabinet ministers, party leaders and leadership candidates to publicly advertise the fundraisers in advance and to release a report some time after the fact about details of the event.” (CP) It would also require fundraisers to take place in “publicly available spaces.” (CP) Not so shockingly, this legislative promise has not been met with high praise from opposition parties. Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose called it a “smoke screen” and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair contends that the legislation fails to address the crux of the issue: “selling access” (or influence) to politicins. Other critics, including the Toronto Star editorial board, have argued that the Trudeau government should have banned these ‘cash-for-access’ fundraisers altogether. While the final legislation has yet to be tabled, the transparency prioritized in the proposed legislation is important. As asserted by The Star’s editorial board, “…where there is transparency, a spotlight can be shone on any perceived wrong-doing.”

Where ‘cash-for-access’ is one major issue under Karina Gould’s belt, the Liberal Party’s abandonment of electoral reform is another. As you likely recall, on the campaign trail in 2015, Justin Trudeau promised “that the 2015 election [would] be the last federal election using first-past-the-post system” (Global News). In December, 2016, the all-party committee commissioned to study alternatives to the first-past-the-post system released a report “recommending the Trudeau government design a new proportional voting system and hold a national referendum to gauge how much Canadians would support it.” (Global News) As you may recall, mPolitics forwarded a similar argument in a blog post last summer. Despite this, the Liberal government announced in January a complete reversal in their pursuit of electoral reform. On the decision, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shared the following: “A clear preference for a new electoral system, let alone a consensus, has not emerged,” and, as a result, “a referendum would not be in Canada’s interest.” Since then, criticism of the Liberal government’s decision to renege on this fundamental promise has generated scathing criticism, and a petition to the Government of Canada to reverse this decision generated over 130,000 signatures.

While this major decision about electoral reform is one that has been made by the party as a whole, and likely before Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould ever touched the file, Ms. Gould has had the unfortunate and enormous task of playing the ‘messenger’ – to the opposition, to the media, and to the public. In a press conference on February 1, which just happened to be Karina Gould’s first press conference ever, Gould officially announced the government’s decision to abandon electoral reform and has been faced with criticism, backlash, and rigorous questioning ever since.

Acting as a spokesperson for a policy you never worked on directly cannot be easy – nor can doing so with the added pressure of being a brand new cabinet minister and the youngest female cabinet minister in Canadian history. In a fairly recent opinion piece authored by Laurin Liu, previously an NDP MP and the youngest female MP in Canadian history, Liu calls Karina Gould’s role in this policy shift a “political cover.” She contends that placing this contentious issue in Ms. Gould’s hands is an example of “…a female leader pushed off the glass cliff, having been hired or promoted only to be set up to fail” (a similar argument was also made by Elizabeth May). Not only does the article itself fail (or even really try) to prove or explain this, but calling Karina Gould’s appointment as Minister of Democratic Institutions an example of “political cover” or a “scapegoat” used to mask a political crisis, completely discredits Karina herself – and the impressive and substantial experience, knowledge and potential she brings to the table.

In Maclean’s Weekly Ottawa Power Rankings for February 3 (which you can listen to weekly via Maclean’s On The Hill podcast), associate editor Shannon Proudfoot listed Karina Gould as someone who had a “bad week” in Canadian politics as a result of the Liberal Party’s electoral reform announcement.  Quite to the contrary, if I could rank Karina Gould for the way she has handled herself over the past few months, under immense pressure, in a brand new role, and tasked with an incredibly challenging mandate, I would tell her she has impressively risen to the challenge. As a young, bright cabinet minister, I think she shows incredible promise and has handled herself remarkably well, both in the face of some very tough criticism and robust political challenges.

Authored by: Emma McKay, Co-Founder & Editor, mPolitics

Karina Gould
Karina Gould speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons. Source: Sean Kilpatrick, Canadian Press 
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