Harper keeps a close eye on grass-roots politics

Quebecers and MacKay promoted so they can bring home the regional vote

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The Gazette, Wednesday, August 15, 2007

There are two faces to government, the prime minister and the cabinet, the leader and the team. The leader can't do it all, as Stephen Harper acknowledged yesterday in shuffling his team.

He was hoping to present an improved team with sharper communications skills on difficult national files, notably the Afghanistan mission. Many of the newly promoted ministers will also play a larger role in the retail politics of their regions.

Thus, Peter MacKay, from foreign affairs to defence, and Maxime Bernier, from industry to foreign affairs, and Jim Prentice, from Indian affairs to industry.

MacKay and Bernier will be the lead advocates of the Afghanistan mission both nationally and in their home regions, while Prentice will take charge of the important regulatory review at industry and remain as chair of the Cabinet Operations Committee, effectively as chief operating officer of the Harper government.

Their immediate task is to improve the Conservatives' stalled fortunes and their prospects for re-election any time between this fall and October 2009, when a bill for fixed elections will kick in if the government doesn't fall in the meantime. But MacKay, Bernier and Prentice would be three leading candidates in any eventual Conservative leadership race to succeed Harper. Yesterday, the prime minister advanced the careers of all three. And all three chose to be sworn into their new portfolios in both English and French. And in every case, their second language, like their leadership networks, is a work in progress.

How their careers will progress, and their prospects for advancement to the top, will depend very much on how they do in their new portfolios.

And not just on the national stage, but in their own regions of the country.

MacKay is a logical fit for defence in the Atlantic, the region of the country where support for the Afghan mission runs highest. Bernier is an obvious advocate for the mission in Quebec, where support for it is the weakest. And Prentice has work to do in Calgary, where the natives in the oilpatch are restless over income trusts, among other irritants with Ottawa.

Tip O'Neill was right: all politics are local. Or in Canada, at least regional.

MacKay assumes a portfolio with a huge presence in the Atlantic, notably the army base Gagetown in New Brunswick, and the naval base in Halifax in Mac-Kay's province of Nova Scotia.

And significantly, MacKay remains minister responsible for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, which cuts a lot of important cheques in the region.

Moreover, at defence, MacKay will be touring those military installations and selling the Conservatives' commitment to renewing the Forces after decades of neglect by previous governments.

Not to put too fine a point on it, defence is a job that will keep MacKay home, mending Tory fences that have been badly frayed by the dispute between the feds and Newfoundland and Nova Scotia over equalization and the offshore.

In foreign affairs, MacKay travelled the world. But that doesn't cut much with the voters of Upper, Middle and Lower Musquodobit, who are far less interested in arms-control talks with the Russians, than in the economic development of their part of the country.

As for Bernier, it is clear he will be the primary advocate, if not the defender, of the Afghan mission, in Quebec. There hasn't been anyone on this file, except for Josée Verner at CIDA, who could make the case for it on French-language television.

But beyond Afghanistan, there are local issues that can be advanced by Bernier's move from industry to the high profile of foreign affairs.

For one thing, there are three Quebec by-elections coming up on Sept. 17, two of them off the island of Montreal, where the Conservatives hope to be competitive with the Bloc.

And then there's Quebec 2008, and the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec.

The world will be coming to Quebec in 2008, and the Conservatives hope to capitalize on it with a strong federal presence.

When dignitaries from around the world come to Quebec, Maxime Bernier will be greeting them on the tarmac and toasting them at banquets at the Chateau Frontenac. And when he's not available, Josée Verner will be there in her new role as Heritage minister.

All politics are local. Even cabinet shuffles.

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