Shuffling the deck

Harper might be considering changing his cabinet ministers - and Ambrose is ripe for a move from the environment job

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The Gazette, Friday, December 15, 2006

No prime minister likes to read stories about cabinet shuffles, since this is the sort of thing he likes to keep for himself. Stephen Harper is no exception, and even more than his predecessors, he likes to maintain control of both secrecy and the media agenda.

But just as the House rose for the holidays, there was a flurry of shuffle stories in the national media yesterday, all of them focused on Rona Ambrose, the embattled environment minister, who has been under fire from interest groups since the government took office, and from all sides since the bungled rollout of the climate-change plan in October.

So much for the notion that the prime minister might quietly reflect on this over the holidays, and decide whether to shuffle his cabinet, or not, early in January.

Instead, on slow news days in the coming weeks, in the slowest news period of the year, the Ottawa press gallery will churn out cabinet-shuffle stories based on nothing more solid than Christmas cocktail chatter. Which would be one reason for Harper to stand pat, just to diss the media and prove them wrong.

However, shuffle stories serve Harper's purpose in the sense they remind all cabinet ministers they serve at his pleasure and that he is constantly grading their performances, in the House and in their departments.

And in this respect, all shuffle speculation begins with Ambrose, because she has struggled with an immensely complex and politically sensitive file, without much help from her officials and with nothing but ridicule and scorn from environmental lobby groups. The opposition parties, meanwhile, have clung to the illusory emissions-reduction targets of Kyoto, and joined the interest groups in a disgraceful gang-up on her at the UN conference in Nairobi last month.

What she does have to take responsibility for is the botched communications plan for the government's climate-change plan in October. The headline should have been: Emissions reduced by two-thirds by 2050. This is exactly what the scientific community has been asking for - long-term targets. Instead the headline became: Nothing until 2050. Not in our lifetime. Ambrose was swamped by a perfect storm, combining the predictable ferocity of interest groups with hugely negative coverage weights in the media.

The entire episode, sighed one senior adviser in the Prime Minister's Office, "was a good lesson - never announce something until it's ready, and we weren't ready." But it was the PMO that was advising Ambrose and her office on the climate change package over the summer.

They broke it, but she owns it.

And Harper has a decision to make - either stand behind her, or move her out as the trigger in a January cabinet shuffle that would present the team he wants to take into an election.

Just as the Clean Air Act was sinking in the House last month, Jack Layton threw the Conservatives a lifeline when he asked Harper to refer it to a special committee of the House, whose work will begin in earnest in January. While the prospect of a Conservative-NDP coalition on climate change might be counterintuitive, it makes a certain amount of practical sense. It would allow the Tories to salvage legislation on an issue that voters care about, and enable the NDP to get some traction on an issue on which they're being squeezed by the Green Party on the left and the Liberals in the centre.

In ordering a reshoot of his environmental video, Harper must decide whether he needs a new spokesperson to go along with a new script. They'll be working on the script over the holidays, with a second chance to get it right, as well to line up their committee witnesses and third party endorsements.

But if Harper decides to change the messenger, the question becomes, if not Rona, whom? And if not environment for her, what?

Well, start with Jim Prentice. Harper's go-to guy as chairman of the powerful operations committee of cabinet was previously asked to find out about the screw-ups in the October announcement the climate-change plan.

Then, there's Industry Minister Maxime Bernier, the rising Quebec star of this cabinet, a natural with the media who would give the Conservatives visibility on the most important Quebec file, one in which the government has been largely absent, leaving the field to the Bloc Quebecois, and now the Liberals led by Stephane Dion.

And finally, a long shot - James Moore, only 30 years old, excluded from cabinet because of his youth, and because Harper doesn't particularly like him. But he's been a good soldier answering for Public Works as parliamentary secretary to Senator Michael Fortier, and he's one of the bright young lights of the Conservative caucus. He also comes from British Columbia, where the environment is incredibly important.

Cabinet shuffles? Nothing to them, from the sidelines.

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