Harper's big cabinet shuffle: key players shift roles, new faces rise - Macleans.ca

Harper’s big cabinet shuffle: key players shift roles, new faces rise

John Geddes on what it means for the Conservatives

Patrick Doyle/CP

Like a strawberry social, the summer cabinet shuffle is a time-honoured function that even new-fangled innovations—like Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s tweeting of key details in advance of this morning’s formal announcements at Rideau Hall—can’t strip of its old-fashioned feel.

And the most traditional, unchanging element of all is the imperative for observers, like me, to instantly assess whether the changes to the ministry signal a significant shift in the government’s direction or a superficial gloss being applied to the same old gang.

Often that’s a tough call. But today’s looks like the undeniable real deal—a shuffle with major strategic impact. I’m even tempted to compare it to Brian Mulroney’s landmark shuffle in early July 1986, which also took shape against the backdrop of a midterm Conservative majority government suffering in the opinion polls and an embattled prime minister looking ahead about two years to an election.

Like Mulroney way back when, Harper has maintained a spine of continuity while making sweeping changes. His most important minister, Jim Flaherty, stays at Finance. The second-most prestigious post, Foreign Affairs, is still John Baird’s domain. And two other important dollars-and-cents portfolios have been left untouched, with Tony Clement remaining in charge of spending cuts at Treasury Board and Ed Fast still tasked with those problematic files at International Trade.

Yet Harper has found room to move top-tier figures to very significant new economic roles. Jason Kenney, who has arguably been the most sure-footed, activist cabinet performer at Citizenship and Immigration, becomes employment and social development minister. James Moore, who cut a wide swath as heritage minister, pushing the government’s patriotism-through-history strategy, gets to add some economic heft to his résumé as industry minister.

Both Kenney and Moore are widely seen as logical leadership aspirants whenever Harper’s run ends, and conventional political wisdom would suggest that being able to point to an economic-policy track record will be an asset in any future leadership bid. For now, though, they should bolster Harper’s ability to send a compelling message on the economy—much-needed reinforcements, considering that Flaherty has been battling a skin disease and Fast is hardly a dynamic communicator.

Peter MacKay, who moves from Defence to Justice, was once seen as a obvious leadership aspirant, too. But his stock fell while he was in Defence, largely because of the F-35 fighter jet procurement fiasco. MacKay’s loyalists will be watching to see if he can restore some lustre in Justice,  which some call his dream job. So important, it seems to me, are these new tasks for established senior ministers—Kenney, Moore, MacKay— that their moves alone would qualify this as an unusually substantive shuffle. But there’s much more, and quite a lot of it involves women.

Two important veterans take on new jobs: Rona Ambrose moves from Public Works, where she was viewed as a strong communicator on the thankless task of cleaning up that F-35 procurement file, to take on Health. Leona Aglukkaq moves from Health to Environment, replacing Peter Kent. If Aglukkaq is expected to put a more approachable face on environment policy than the often brittle, combative Kent, she will have to pick up her game.

Of the new women in cabinet, former Winnipeg police officer Shelly Glover gets by far the biggest promotion, replacing Moore as heritage minister. Glover can be a hard-hitting partisan, and her move—among others—signals that Harper still values that sort of attitude. Then there are some notable junior appointments: Candice Bergen as minister of state (social development); Kellie Leitch as minister of labour; and status of women; Michelle Rempel as minister of state (western economic diversification); and Lynne Yelich as minister of state for foreign affairs and consular services.

One intriguing aspect of the shuffle is the way Harper has handled the roles that generally set the government’s tone on the business of the House of Commons, and the closely related matter of reforming the core democratic institutions. He kept Peter Van Loan as House Leader, despite PVL’s strained relationship with the opposition parties. And Pierre Poilievre, among the most aggressively partisan Tory battlers in question period and on TV political panels, takes over as minister of state for democratic reform, which puts him in charge of the fraught Senate reform file.

Keeping Van Loan in place and promoting Poilievre to this particular job suggests Harper doesn’t view fostering a more collegial atmosphere in Parliament as a priority. (Thinking back to that watershed 1986 Mulroney shuffle, there’s a glaring contrast: Mulroney replaced his deputy prime minister, Erik Nielsen, who had come to represent hard-core Tory partisanship in his early years in power, with Don Mazankowski, a far more agreeable House persona.)

Poilievre would seem to have earned his elevation into cabinet by slugging it out with the opposition whenever he was needed. Chris Alexander, who got another of the day’s big promotions by taking over from Kenney at Citizenship and Immigration, also embraced not-always-pretty task of defending the government on some testing days, notably this spring when damaging Senate expenses revelations were coming thick and fast. Alexander is also a former diplomat, and his rise into such a plumb job confirms his status as a rising star.

So the shuffle has at least three broad elements. On the economy, continuity, yes, but Kenney and Moore beefing up the lineup of economic policy figures quite significantly. Among new faces, several younger women crack the cabinet, as veterans Ambrose and Aglukkaq move to interesting new positions. And on the tone Harper sets, no sign of that he wants to smooth the government’s ragged partisan edge, as Van Loan survives and Poilievre and Alexander and Glover all climb.

Will this shuffle strengthen Harper’s ability to sell his party as the safe pick for voters worried about Canada’s future prosperity? Will the new and more prominent faces, especially younger women, make voters less inclined to see this as a government growing stale in power? And will cleaving to a hard-core partisan style, if that’s what’s in store,  help or hurt? There is more than enough here to guess that two years from now the success or failure of this shuffle will be looked back on as a key factor in setting the stage for a fall 2015 election.

Other new assignments in this unusually wide-ranging rejig of the cabinet:

  • Christian Paradis: international development
  • Denis Lebel: infrastructure
  • Steven Blaney: public safety
  • Diane Finley: public works and government services
  • Greg Rickford minister of state (science and technology)
  • Kevin Sorensen minister of state (finance)
  • John Duncan government whip
  • Rob Moore is the minister of state (Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency)