It's shuffle time!

Harper will shift cabinet ministers this week - expect a few new faces

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The Gazette, Monday, August 13, 2007

It's been an anxious weekend for cabinet ministers and their senior staff, under orders to remain in the Ottawa area for word of a shuffle that Stephen Harper is expected to announce today, or tomorrow at the latest.

In the silly season swirl of rumours, Harper is either planning a big shuffle or a mini-shuffle, promoting some backbenchers to cabinet or none, while maintaining, increasing or decreasing the number of women in his cabinet.

In one big shuffle scenario making the rounds on the weekend, Peter MacKay and Maxime Bernier were mooted to trade portfolios at Foreign Affairs and Industry, while not even Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was deemed to be untouchable.

In the cleanest mini-shuffle story, Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice would replace the hapless Gordon O'Connor at Defence, while the retired brigadier would replace Greg Thompson at Veterans Affairs, and Thompson would replace Carol Skelton at Revenue. Since she has announced she's not running again, there's no point keeping her in cabinet.

On the women's file, if Skelton is dumped and Bev Oda is moved out of Heritage, who would Harper promote to maintain at least seven women in his 32-member cabinet? That's easy: Diane Ablonczy from Alberta and Lynne Yelich from Saskatchewan, both overdue for promotion from the backbench.

Between a maxi-shuffle and a mini-shuffle, Harper is likely to produce a midi-shuffle, one that serves the purpose of change, while maintaining a steady hand on the wheel of government.

Speculation about MacKay and Bernier swapping jobs fails to take into account one important question - what would be gained by it? Both are popular ministers in their regions of the Atlantic and Quebec, both have been impressive learners in complex portfolios, and both like what they're doing.

Similarly, why would Harper even think of moving Flaherty out of Finance? Flaherty might have used up some capital on income trusts and the equalization file in the Atlantic, while losing some over the offshore tax ruling in the budget, but that doesn't mean he's a spent force. It means that on income trusts and equalization he took tough but necessary decisions, while he and his department bungled the initial offshore call. More likely, Flaherty will get a new deputy minister in an eventual deputy shuffle, something the clerk of the Privy Council, Kevin Lynch, should now be preparing for Harper's consideration.

As for a mini-shuffle, it's hardly worth all the rumours to hold a summer swearing-in of only two or three ministers.

So, a midi-shuffle is most likely, something between a bang and a whimper, a very Canadian compromise.

O'Connor and Oda are the likely trigger points, and Skelton offers another portfolio that can be added to the mix.

Ironically, while O'Connor and Oda come from strong backgrounds in the military and broadcasting, both have underperformed in key portfolios in their own areas. O'Connor can't stay on message and can't keep the chief of defence staff, Rick Hillier, on the same page. Oda is also a weak communicator in at least one sense - she doesn't speak French and in the cultural portfolio, that's a serious handicap.

The logical successors to those two are Jim Prentice and Josée Verner.

While Indian and Northern Affairs is far from the most important portfolio in government, it is one of the most dangerous swamps in Ottawa, with sensitive aboriginal and environmental files, and difficult stakeholders who are notoriously resistant to change. Prentice has impressively mastered these files, while winning the grudging respect of stakeholders. And as head of the cabinet operations committee, he has become the chief operating officer of the government. He is known as a good listener and a good problem solver, and is an obvious choice for defence, which with Afghanistan is the most challenging difficult portfolio in government.

Verner is ready to step up from her junior role as minister of the Canadian International Development Agency and minister for la Francophonie. She has managed the CIDA Afghanistan files not just in terms of photo-ops, but in the House. Heritage is a much bigger responsibility, but she has earned the shot.

As for Ablonczy, it's an enduring mystery that she was left out of cabinet in the first place, having been an effective frontbencher in opposition. The excuse for overlooking her, that she's from Calgary, which already has Harper and Prentice in cabinet, has always been flimsy. In any event, she has soldiered on loyally as Flaherty's parliamentary secretary, and has also earned her turn. The same can be said for Lynne Yelich. And in her case, both region and gender should work in favour this time - like Skelton, she's from Saskatchewan.

Expect Harper to do the midi.

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