Defence department needs a new minister, but who?

PM has three possible candidates to replace the faltering O'Connor

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The Gazette, Friday, August 3, 2007 (also appeared in the National Post)

We're now in August, and to mark the official start of the silly season, here's the first of many offerings on a cabinet shuffle in Ottawa.

Why? Because it's August, and that's reason enough. There's another reason - Gordon O'Connor. He's a cabinet shuffle waiting to happen. And here's the fun part - while only Stephen Harper can make it happen, everyone gets a free kick at the can.

After his encounter with the media at the Conservative caucus in Charlottetown on Wednesday, O'Connor's effectiveness as defence minister is pretty much kaput. For his own sake, as well as for the sake of the mission in Afghanistan, he needs to be taken off the firing line. He has become the story, or rather, the space between Rick Hillier, the chief of defence staff, and O'Connor, the defence minister, has become the story. Yesterday's Globe and Mail headline, "O'Connor insists he and Hillier of like mind," pretty much makes this point.

There comes a time when perception is reality, and the perception of cleavage between the defence minister and his top general has become reality.

When O'Connor tried to blow it off as media hype, insisting "it's the way you interpret our words," that became the story, too. The media have pegged him as an easy mark. How the media breached the wall of the Conservative Party's private caucus space is immaterial. They were looking for a story and found one in O'Connor. Have a nice day.

When a minister becomes the story, a storm is usually survivable. When he becomes the issue, it isn't. Beyond a certain point, the only way to change the message track is to change the messenger. Such was the case with Rona Ambrose in Environment last January, when John Baird was brought in as the relief. A tough file needed a strong communicator who knew the hard rules of the political game, and Baird has served that purpose.

And so O'Connor figures to become the trigger of a summer cabinet shuffle. And trigger is the word for it. The thing about a cabinet shuffle is that all the pieces have to fit together, and only the prime minister has all the pieces. If someone is being moved, as opposed to being dumped, there has to be a place for him. More important, there has to be someone to replace him and, unless that someone is being promoted from the backbench, someone to replace the replacement.

Assuming that Harper decides to ease O'Connor out of defence, but keep him in cabinet, there are several places he could land, such as Veterans Affairs, where as a retired brigadier he could bring a lot of knowledge to files in a key Tory demographic.

Or, as an Ottawa-area MP, he might be a good fit at Treasury Board, which could be viewed as a lateral shuffle rather than a demotion. Problem is, there are already people in those jobs, Greg Thompson at Veterans Affairs, and Vic Toews at Treasury Board.

But who would be the new defence minister? Someone who could manage the mission in Afghanistan, and sell it.

Here's a prospective short list:

Peter MacKay. He's currently minister of Foreign Affairs, is also senior minister for the Atlantic, and has important defence bases in his region, notably the navy in Halifax and the army at Gagetown, N.B. He also looks good in a helmet and flak jacket.

But after a shaky start at Foreign Affairs last year, he has worked hard to learn an array of complex files, and has networked with other foreign affairs ministers from Washington to Jerusalem.

In moving him to Defence, Harper would be giving up what MacKay has learned at Foreign Affairs. And who would move to Foreign Affairs?

See? It's not that easy.

Maxime Bernier. No doubt about it, he's the rising star from Quebec. He's telegenic. He gives good sound bite in both languages. He drives the Bloc Qubcois crazy in the House. He would be an articulate advocate for Afghanistan in Quebec, at a time when Quebec's Van Doos are the relief in Kandahar.

Yet Bernier is also managing important files as industry minister, including competition policy and new telecom platforms.

Jim Prentice. Here's the guy, Harper's go-to guy as chairperson of the cabinet operations committee, chief operating officer of the government.

As minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, he's also managed to win the respect of stakeholders while changing expectations in a very sensitive portfolio.

He's thoughtful, he's discreet, and known for having the best staff on Parliament Hill. Managing the mission, not his relationship with Hillier, would be the story.

So, prime minister, think about it. There are only four weeks left in August.

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