Conservative cabinet promises to be more feminine

But there will be few changes in the government's economic portfolios

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The Gazette, Sunday, October 26, 2008

There will be three interesting elements to the federal cabinet shuffle coming this week. The first is continuity in economic portfolios, in the face of the global financial storm. The second the very real possibility that a significant number of women, perhaps as many as 10 or 11, will be appointed cabinet ministers or junior secretaries of state in the new Harper government. And third, Quebec, always Quebec.

First, Jim Flaherty is staying in Finance. It's a time for a steady hand on the helm, as Flaherty showed in the final stages of the election campaign, when a panicked Conservative war room finally realized that politics is a team sport, and put Flaherty out on the ice alongside the leader.

Flaherty's reassuring performance in the last days of the campaign, especially at an emergency meeting of G7 finance ministers in Washington, was a reminder that Canada's financial fundamentals remain strong, despite the storm in capital markets. And Friday's news of a $1.8-billion federal deficit in August was a further signal to batten down the hatches.

Moreover, Flaherty is now a familiar colleague to the G7 and G20 finance ministers, as well as the heads of international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and the heads of the major central banks. The governor of the Bank of Canada, Mark Carney, was a former associate deputy minister under Flaherty until last year.

And then there is Bay Street, where Flaherty is held in high regard even if people there don't always do Finance's bidding. (Flaherty was furious near the end of the campaign when the commercial banks passed on to customers only half of a 50-basis-point rate cut announced by Carney).

Similarly, it's really not a good time to be moving Jim Prentice from the key Industry portfolio - not with Canadian manufacturing under siege, not with our export-reliant economy running into a recession in the U.S. and global markets.

Two senior portfolios have come open, Foreign Affairs (by the retirement of David Emerson) and International Trade (by the defeat of Michael Fortier). Both are good places to rack up frequent-flyer points. But Prentice, as chair of the Cabinet Operations Committee, is effectively chief operating officer of the government, and he can't run that committee from an airplane. Neither could Lawrence Cannon be an effective Quebec lieutenant, and likely minister for the Montreal region, if he were moved from Transport to Foreign Affairs.

Second, about women. There were only seven women (five ministers and two secretaries of state) in the last 32-member ministry. But if this time Harper comes back with a cabinet of 30 to 33 ministers and secretaries of state, there's every possibility that a third of them, 10 or 11 in all, will be women.

This time the Conservatives have elected 23 women MPs, and given their personal profiles, professional resumes, ethnic and regional considerations, it's very easy for Harper to get from seven to 10 or 11. He even has room to dump a couple who may have disappointed.

But assuming all seven women members of the last cabinet stay on (Marjory LeBreton, Rona Ambrose, Diane Finley, Bev Oda, Josťe Verner, Diane Ablonczy and Helena Guergis), there's plenty of room around the table for more, starting with Gail Shea, a former transport minster in PEI and the first Conservative elected there since 1984. She's a cinch to become minister for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.

Similarly, Leona Aglukkaq from Nunavut is the first Conservative MP from that territory, where she has experience at the territorial cabinet level.

Lisa Raitt, CEO of the Toronto Port Authority, knocked off Garth Turner in suburban Toronto.

In Manitoba, Shelley Glover is a fully bilingual Metis former police spokesperson who won the historic Liberal seat of St. Boniface. Imagine the prospect of a Metis woman from Manitoba in a Conservative cabinet - in the party that hanged Louis Riel. That would be history coming full circle.

In British Columbia, Alice Wong knocked off veteran Liberal Raymond Chan.

Some of these are names and faces that would promote multiculturalism as well as women's issues. LeBreton, for one, is always reminding people that it was Conservative governments that gave women the vote (under Robert Borden), put the first woman in cabinet (John Diefenbaker did that) and named two women, including the present chief justice, to the Supreme Court (Brian Mulroney was PM).

About Quebec, there were just five ministers in the last government, and Harper needs to retain that number, at least, from a deputation of only 10 MPs, just as in 2006. With Fortier's departure, Harper has several options for promotion, including Maxime Bernier, who in the Westminster tradition has been given an impressively clean slate by his voters in Beauce.

The question is not whether Bernier deserves a second chance so much as whether Harper is willing to give him one. But a moment of forgiveness and compassion might even be seen to narrow Harper's empathy deficit.

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