Cabinet (mini-)shuffle: Mulroney-era veteran moves up a notch

After 18-year hiatus, Bernard Valcourt rises into a sensitive position

In the wake of Bev Oda’s announcement yesterday that she is leaving politics and her post as minister of international cooperation, the Prime Minister announced a quick, compact cabinet shuffle today. It’s interesting primarily because Bernard Valcourt, a veteran of Brian Mulroney’s cabinet who returned to federal politics in last year’s election after an 18-year hiatus, now rises into the sensitive position of overseeing military equipment purchases.

That job opens up because Julian Fantino is being moved over into Oda’s slot, which puts the former head of the Ontario Provincial Police in charge of the foreign aid file.  It is, for the most part, a responsibility that need not be particularly high-profile or high-pressure—Oda managed to draw the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

But the far more intriguing element here is that Fantino had previously been associate minister of national defence, charged specifically with overseeing major procurements. And into that important niche Harper has decided to place Valcourt, the New Brunswick MP who was, in different stints, Mulroney’s minister of consumer and corporate affairs and minister of fisheries and oceans.

Harper tried him out first as minister of state for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and for the Francophonie, and apparently liked the veteran’s work. So Valcourt will hold onto those responsibilities as he takes up the junior defence minister’s job. That should see him on his feet often in Question Period fielding Opposition queries on multibillion-dollar procurements.

Needless to say, buying military hardware can be a challenging file to communicate effectively on, and Fantino wasn’t much good at it—especially when the F-35 jet fighter questions were coming at him in relentless salvos. But it’s not just those costly jets. This week’s awkward revelation, for instance, is that Sikorsky has missed the date for the what was supposed to be the first delivery of new Cyclone helicopters.

Valcourt was previously an MP from 1984 until 1993, when he fell, like so many Tories, in that year’s Liberal sweep. He bounced back by becoming New Brunswick’s Conservative leader, sitting in the provincial legislature from 1995 to 1999. Returning to Ottawa in last year’s election, he was of particular political value to Harper—who was left with just five MPs from Quebec in his Conservative caucus—as a francophone with solid cabinet experience.

So a solid performance from Valcourt would offer Harper three different sorts of political dividend—easing the anxiety around delayed and dubious military procurements, adding another prominent francophone voice to a government that doesn’t boast many, and boosting the sense that the Conservatives have a bit of bench strength in the Altantic provinces on issues that matters there.