Shuffling the deck

A federal cabinet shuffle would likely be limited, because most front-line Conservative ministers appear to be handling their jobs well

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The Gazette, Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Talk about a cabinet shuffle is a favourite pastime of the Ottawa press corps when Parliament isn't sitting, as it won't be until March 3. The chatter is bound to pick up when the prime minister himself gets drawn into it, as Stephen Harper did in a radio interview yesterday, allowing as how, sooner or later, he would be doing a shuffle.

Maybe this is what he meant by "recalibrating" the government's agenda when he prorogued the House. One thing he has already recalibrated is the PM's traditional year-ender interviews, which by moving into January he has transformed into year-aheaders. He's talking to almost anyone with a press credential, including the Business News Network, which he told on Monday that markets detest the inherent instability of a minority House.

"That's the kind of instability I think that markets are actually worried about," he said. "But you know the government will be well-prepared and I think Canadians want to see us focus on the economy."

Well, that'll get the chattering classes to stop talking about prorogation. Harper tends to get in trouble when his fascination with tactics gets the better of him. In proroguing, he painted a bit of a target on his forehead, making it about him, his alleged contempt for Parliament, his disdain for democracy. The blowback is apparent on Facebook, and in a Liberal attack ad, with a giant fence around Parliament. It's been getting plenty of earned media, which is to say free media, in news coverage.

In proroguing, Harper also relinquished a message that worked very well for him in 2009 - staying in Ottawa and making Parliament work, while the Liberals played election games. Moreover, in dismissing Parliament, he can hardly accuse the opposition of obstructing it.

The opposition parties now get the benefit of playing it both ways, scorching Harper in their public discourse, while privately being quite relieved that they don't have to compete with the Vancouver Olympics for airtime.

How big is the coverage of the Olympics going to be? A thaw, and the threat of melting snow at Olympic venues, was the lead story on The National on Monday night, fully 32 days before the Games begin. And the CBC doesn't even have broadcast rights.

As for any cabinet shuffle during the parliamentary prorogation, that's certainly one way of changing the channel. The press corps is always the first to speculate on cabinet shuffles, but usually the last to know. Shuffles are closely held secrets, usually involving a very few people - the PM, his chief of staff, his director of communications and, at the end of the day, the clerk of the Privy Council.

Prime ministers generally don't like cabinet shuffles, but they do serve the purpose of reminding ministers that they are never more than a phone call away from demotion, and giving backbenchers renewed hope that the PM's switchboard will track them down for a call from the big guy.

In practice, cabinet shuffles are about getting ministers out of trouble, or sending a top minister to a hot spot.

And when you look along Harper's front bench, it isn't in a lot of trouble. It's quite solid. It ain't broke, so there's no real reason to fix it.

In fact, there are quite a few untouchables in this cabinet, ministers Harper has no reason to move, starting with the Queen's Park Three - Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Transport Minister John Baird, and Industry Minister Tony Clement.

All three had a very good year in 2009. Flaherty's budget saved the government after the close call of its self-inflicted parliamentary crisis. And his upcoming budget will be about transitioning from recession to recovery, with a downward trend line on the deficit to make the case that it is cyclical, not structural.

Baird is in charge of getting $40 billion of infrastructure stimulus out the door, and that involves working with the provinces as well as his own bureaucrats.

And Clement was the lead minister on the GM bailout, an extraordinarily complex transaction involving Ontario and the U.S. government. With 20 per cent of North American auto production in Ontario, Canada was always going to be in for 20 per cent of whatever the White House decided. So now we own 20 per cent of GM, which is still making cars in Ontario as a result.

Several other ministers had strong years. Jim Prentice might not have wanted the environment portfolio, but as at industry, he has mastered his files, particularly climate change. At International Trade, Stockwell Day is highly regarded by business stakeholders. And Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon has an air of imperturbability that suits his role. Defence Minister Peter MacKay could have done without the Afghan detainee file, but neither has he withered under fire in the House.

A minor shuffle might allow Maxime Bernier out of the penalty box. In the Westminster tradition, if his voters forgave his previous indiscretion, so should Harper.

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