New faces in Harper's cabinet overhaul, but old guard stands economic watch

OTTAWA – To get a feeling for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet shuffle, a glance at the seating arrangement inside Rideau Hall’s august ballroom spoke volumes.

In the front rows, veteran cabinet ministers held on to the top economic and international files that the Conservative government has long declared its top priority.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Treasury Board President Tony Clement, Trade Minister Ed Fast, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver comprise the team handling key issues like job creation, oil pipelines and a Canada-Europe free trade deal.

Directly behind them was a group of long-time politicians in new portfolios charged with backing them up on the economic front — Industry Minister James Moore, Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenney and Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel.

Harper banked on the economy as a winning issue for the Conservatives in the 2011 election, and appears to be adopting the same strategy for 2015.

“The team Canadians elected in 2011 is deep and it is talented. Many younger members of Parliament have earned more responsibility and are ready for more responsibility,” Harper said outside Rideau Hall on a sweltering July day.

“Today they step forward and join experienced hands who remain in key portfolios.”

In the posterior rows, an entirely different demographic — new, younger MPs and women, taking up some of the social portfolios and junior minister posts.

Bilingual, Metis Manitoba MP Shelly Glover nabbed Canadian Heritage; pediatric surgeon Kellie Leitch was named labour minister; and former Canadian diplomat Chris Alexander took over from Jason Kenney at Citizenship and Immigration.

Pierre Poilievre, one of Harper’s go-to, hyper-partisan MPs for taking on the opposition, fills the democratic reform portfolio and thus the daunting task of Senate reform.

The new ministers have all served as parliamentary secretaries, carrying the government’s message regularly on television panels and during question period.

The new faces were the ones emphasized most by the Prime Minister’s Office — Alexander and Michelle Rempel, minister of state for western economic development, were the pair selected to speak to the media following the official ceremony.

“As someone who has been in public service for Canada since 1991, to be a minister, to be in this place, with eight colleagues who are joining the Privy Council for the first time, it’s an emotional moment for us,” Alexander said.

“But we have no illusions about the job we have to do, about how hard the work will be.”

Putting an even finer point on its goal of achieving a younger, more contemporary feel, the PMO released the names of each appointment via Twitter instead of by email, fax or handout.

Harper also confirmed Monday the government would deliver a throne speech, complete with a “renewed policy agenda,” when the House of Commons resumes in the fall.

Harper’s government has appeared sensitive to the optics of a front bench that will eventually take on the NDP with its young, diverse caucus and the Liberals with their popular new leader, 41-year-old Justin Trudeau.

The number of women in cabinet grew by two to 12 — 31 per cent of the ministry, compared with 27 per cent before the shuffle. The powerful Planning and Priorities committee of cabinet goes from two women to three, although a woman is no longer vice-chair.

The NDP responded soon after the swearing-in ceremony with a news conference held by two female MPs — deputy leader Megan Leslie and Quebec MP Rosane Dore Lefebvre.

“If we look at the economic portfolios, it’s the same people. (Harper) talked about fresh faces, there was all this hype about more women in different portfolios, and those portfolios are exactly the same,” said Leslie.

“If the prime minister…actually thought it was time for a new direction, those key portfolios would be moved around.”

The shuffle was also notable for those who did not make the cut.

The Senate itself was absent from Rideau Hall. The Prime Minister’s Office had already signalled it would no longer include the Conservative leader in the upper chamber in cabinet, hoping to sever at least some ties with the Senate spending scandal.

Party whip Gordon O’Connor was replaced by B.C. MP John Duncan, who resigned from cabinet earlier this year after he revealed he had written to a Tax Court judge on behalf of a constituent.

Duncan is well-liked in caucus — a fact that could help after a season of some discontent in the backbenches, and tensions to come should some MPs be unhappy they were passed over for promotion.

Former Environment Minister Peter Kent is also out of cabinet, replaced in the job by Leona Aglukkaq.

Several other, older ministers had previously indicated they were departing, such as Vic Toews, Diane Ablonczy and Marjory LeBreton.

Newly minted Justice Minister Peter MacKay, who switched jobs with new Defence Minister Rob Nicholson, provided a bit of comic relief during the hour-long swearing-in ceremony.

Squinting hard to read the text of his ministerial oath, MacKay eventually gave up and pulled a pair of reading glasses out of his pocket — causing the room to erupt with laughter. In the back of the room, wife Nazanin Afshin-Jam bounced their three-month-old son Kian.

“Welcome to the old geezer’s club,” Harper said to MacKay.