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What to make of Stephen Harper’s new cabinet


 

Adrian Wyld/CP

So Peter Kent and Vic Toews are out and Michelle Rempel and Chris Alexander are in.

So what exactly?

Will this new cabinet now commence cooperating with the Parliamentary Budget Officer? Will there now be a full and complete explanation of the cuts the government is making to return the budget to balance? Will it acknowledge that allowing Peter Van Loan’s chief of staff to participate in the selection of the next budget officer was not the best idea? Will we never again hear about the NDP’s “carbon tax?” Will this new cabinet suggest to the Prime Minister that he explain now what he has done over the last two months to ascertain the details of the arrangement between Nigel Wright and Mike Duffy? Will it instruct Statistics Canada to reinstate the long-form census? Will there be new restrictions on the use of public advertising? Will Brent Rathgeber and Mark Warawa receive apologies? Will there be less frequent uses of time allocation? Will so much of the time reserved each day for statements by members be something other than a rote recital of partisan inanities?

Probably not any of that, but there are now “new faces” and soon there will be a “new agenda.” The shuffle was about “generational change.” The faces of  Mr. Alexander and Ms. Rempel, bright-faced and blonde, played appealingly on the television and the new minister of immigration and the new minister of state for Western economic development also seem to have been posed directly over the Prime Minister’s left shoulder in the official family photo at Rideau. So at least this shuffle had a theme—the weirdly anatomical “New faces, experienced hands”—and there were nice pictures to go along with the story.

What else?

Leona Aglukkaq inherits the carbon tax farce from Mr. Kent, which at least makes it more difficult for the NDP’s Megan Leslie to ever again accuse this government of putting two grumpy old men in charge of its resource policy. (Joe Oliver remains to continue shaking his fist at environmentalists and yelling at them to get off the national lawn so that he can run a pipeline through it.) And maybe Ms. Aglukkaq will be the lucky environment minister who gets to finally impose regulations on the oil and gas sector.

Peter MacKay’s move to justice at least puts some distance between the procurement of a new jet fighter and Mr. MacKay’s record of saying silly things about that procurement. (And Rob Nicholson’s move to defence at least allows for a relatively easy transition from complaining about the opposition’s lack of support for getting tough on criminals to complaining about the opposition’s lack of support for supporting the troops.) The decision to forgo appointing a new intergovernmental affairs minister might acknowledge that the portfolio had fallen into disuse (or it could be that the Prime Minister didn’t want to set a new record with a cabinet numbering 40).

The decision to put Pierre Poilievre in charge of democratic reform feels like the Prime Minister trolling liberals and parliamentary adherents, but it might simply provide official cover to his unofficial assignment of defending the government against accusations of political unfortunateness. At least now when he stands to dance in front of some charge on behalf of some other minister or Conservative MP, it’ll be because he has a vaguely applicable cabinet portfolio. And his relative youth conceivably gives him plenty of time to sit around waiting for the Senate to be reformed. Mr. Poilievre is a fascinating case. And he now has nominal responsibility for our longest-standing parliamentary dilemma. It is strangely fitting that it should come to this. (And that the young man who once mocked the “in-and-out” charges of violating election spending limits will now presumably be the minister who introduces the government’s electoral reform legislation adds a helpful bit of irony to the storyline.)

With EI reform, pensions, youth unemployment and various other concerns to answer for, Diane Finley was often the most active participant in QP over the past year and so now it would seem that there will be a lot more from Jason Kenney in the fall in the rechristened ministry of “Employment and Social Development.” And it will be his responsibility to justify all that government advertising for a job grant that doesn’t yet exist. And if Justin Trudeau’s concerns for the middle class align with Mr. Kenney’s new responsibilities, this might put the two on something of a collision course. Or, put another way, it might provide an official ring for the fight Mr. Kenney has seemed eager to have with Mr. Trudeau.

Conservative backbenchers had reportedly wanted to see both Peter Van Loan and Gordon O’Connor moved and while John Duncan is now the government whip, the suspendered Mr. Van Loan remains in the spot where he has become a defining character of this era in the history of our parliamentary democracy. We shall see whether Mr. O’Connor’s exit and Mr. Duncan’s genial manner is enough to satisfy the disgruntled and whether the Backbench Spring is to extend into the fall.

And the whole thing was announced on Twitter. Take that, Mr. Trudeau. Rumour has it that the Throne Speech will be relayed as a series of cat gifs.

The average age of this group is apparently somewhat lower than the average age of its predecessor. The future of the Conservative party is somewhere in this group and the new faces will hopefully have some new ideas, or at least some new ideas to convey. The basic mould of the Harper government likely set several years ago, but the future is always full of possibility. And maybe the mould is still basically sturdy and useful.

Of course, the minister whose purview has lately caused the government the most grief was not moved from his spot. The minister whose chief of staff gave $90,000 to a sitting senator, the minister who nominated Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin to the Senate, the minister who may or may not know whatever the members of his staff may or may not know about the deal between Nigel Wright and Mr. Duffy, the minister whose staff is blamed for the unhappiness of backbenchersthe minister whose office is now said to be not cooperating with the RCMP—that minister was not shuffled to the backbench or given a new title. He is still Prime Minister. The relatively profound question of whether he should keep his job is a question for the next two years. The new faces and experienced hands will have served their purposes if they merely help, rather than hinder, his ability to answer that question in the affirmative. And if Keystone XL gets approved and a free trade deal with Europe is completed and if the housing market doesn’t crash and if Mr. Harper’s current rivals fare as miserably as his previous rivals and if his government can justify itself with a new set of proposals and if the budget cuts don’t seem too obvious, then perhaps the struggles of the past six months won’t matter and maybe this won’t be the last cabinet he gets to tweet about.


 

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