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)



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

  1. Too little, too late.

  2. It’s too early to say whether this will significantly help the Tories/Harper in the polls. This is only step 1 of a supposed 3-part process (the next 2 steps being a throne speech, and the CPC party convention in October).
    If Harper chooses to reboot/refresh his cabinet, but continue his usual ways from now until 2015, with no new ideas, and no change in his partisan ways, there’s a great chance he will lose the next election.

    • To a bearded Marxist or a Bieber wannabe. Notice a trend that all provincial governments have remained status quo

      • Notice the increased dwindling of voter turn-out. People are really turned off by these charletans and carpetbaggers. It’s the only way these creeps can win – just turn off everyone.

  3. It’s the Bouquet Shuffle by the master florist.

    • And Laureen’s dress – just noticed.

      • I don’t know how she stands it!

        • How she stands what? She married the lug, and benefits from her status in the country.

  4. It appears to be a very strong cabinet and I was very pleased to see Chris Alexander and Pierre Poilieve recognized by the PM….rising stars in the Conservative Party. I think Canada will be well served.

    • Skippy’s prominence is a wonderful gift to the opposition – a pretentious, self-important, truly irritating, reflexively partisan lightweight whose obedient recitation of PMO talking points reminds everyone that Harper is the master puppeteer.

      • I’ll quibble with that assessment. He doesn’t just recite the talking points, he truly makes them his own. It’s really something to see. He’s extremely good at what he does (even if you hate what he does). I think he’s less of a gift to the opposition than you think. That said, now that he actually has some responsibilities, he’s got to show us more than his partisan pitbull act.

        • I humbly beg to differ. What Harper doesn’t get is that people are tired of his government being jerks to everyone.

          He got away with it when he managed to portray his position as “righteous”, but he doesn’t have that tool anymore. Adding more visibility to his attack dogs is just going to sink him even faster.

          • They use attack ads because they work.

            Just consider this lowering the bar even further.

    • yep the nasty party is well and alive

  5. Surprised there was not much for Rempel; bare minimum.

  6. Goodness, you’d think the man actually accomplished something. It’s just a cabinet shuffle folks…..something that doesn’t matter to anyone but the shuffled….and the media.

    They’ve fallen for yet another shiny object.

  7. Didn’t Shelly Glover dispute her elections claims because she wanted one form of accounting over the preferred methods of Elections Canada?

    That’ll be a huge blow to the Conservative Party once Yves Coté decides what’s going to be done with the file. Did the Penashue file teach anyone in the PMO anything?

  8. Should be “plum job” not “plumb job.”

    • In this case, the plumbing is out-dated and needs replacing.

  9. Well … changes everything, eh ?

    • LOL yup. Everyone will forget the last 7 years of disaster now I’m sure.

  10. I am so pleased to see Michelle Rempel appointed for Western Diversification.

    Now I can revamp my plans for a normal butane plant to an isobutane plant, with, of course much new bonding!

    Cheers MR – i. :)

  11. Will be interesting to watch Jason Kenny supervise the continued dismantling of EI for seasonal workers (culture of dependence) in Eastern Canada, trying to force 50 year old female seasonal fish plant workers to find off season temporary jobs or move to Alberta. Diane Finley fought the good fight but seemed to be losing most of the arguments.
    Kenny may put his foot in it before it’s over. His inner Kevin O’Leary may pop right out.

    • Worked with many Eastern Canadians in Calgary in the oil patch who would frequently would run down those down east who spend 12 weeks a year working and other weeks of the year ” on the teat’”

      • Right, because forcing a parent to abandon their child so they can go West in order to put food on their table is such a great scheme.

        And of course, if they’re a single parent household, that’s not even an option… But hey, poverty can’t be that bad right?

        • too effing true!

      • I don’t have a lot of respect for people (especially men) who constantly reference “teats” in their discourse about politics. Were you never, ever breastfed? Jealous?

        • By my mom but unlike some seasonal types got off the teat before I turned 50.

  12. I am uneducated in these matters, but can someone tell me: Would the GG usually attend these sorts of things? Is this part of a GG’s Official Duty?

    • The GG swears in Cabinet Ministers. In this instance he basically performs the same function as the Chief Justice in the U.S. does on Presidential inauguration day.

      I suppose the swearing in could be done quietly behind closed doors, but I don’t think it’s ever (or very rarely ever) been done that way.

      • Thank you

  13. Nothing to see here. Just the same old faces from a short deck of used cards.

  14. The PM’s office think many voters are enemies. Says a Toronto Star story:

    “Ministers in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s newly shuffled cabinet are being armed with “enemy” lists of people and bureaucratic interests to avoid, according to a PMO email obtained by the Star.”

    So Harper thinks thinking members of the public are enemies. I guess that means we, the thinking public, can fight back using everything and anything we can to defend ourselves, even though the RCMP and military are on the government payroll and forced to do whatever the Prime Minister wants done to us — no matter how sinister.

  15. Today the MC announced the entrance of the Govenor-General and his wife and said they were accompanied by the PM and his wife, yet the PM and his wife entered the hall first. I would like to know if this is normal or if the PM was out of line. I’d really appreciate it if anyone knows the answer.

  16. Lisa Raitt at Transport. Slow clap.

    • Hah! good one.

  17. Really thought Bergen would get Public Safety file and Blaney would take over for Van Loan. Otherwise thumbs up on the shuffle.

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