Harper chose to tweak rather than shuffle his cabinet

Communicator Peter Kent is tagged to sell Canada's position on warming

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The Gazette, Wednesday, January 5, 2011

On the first working day of the new year, Stephen Harper short-circuited speculation by tweaking rather than shuffling his cabinet.

Peter Kent got the call to fill the vacancy at Environment, a major promotion from minister of state for the Americas at Foreign Affairs. Diane Ablonczy replaces him there, moving over from minister of state for seniors. Freshman MP Julian Fantino replaces her at seniors, while Ted Menzies is rewarded for his diligent work on pension reform and other files as parliamentary secretary to the finance minister, and is promoted to junior minister of finance.

In sum, one important cabinet vacancy was filled, one junior minister was moved laterally, and two new secretaries of state got a car and driver. In Fantino's case, he also gets a roadmap of Highway 407, the toll expressway that runs through the suburban belt around Toronto. His job will be to help the Conservatives do what he did in the Vaughan by-election - bring more suburban ridings into the Conservative fold.

Peter Kent is an interesting choice for Environment, though not an obvious one. The prime minister clearly liked what he saw of him, and in the last year's run-up to the G8 and G20, he saw quite a bit of him. In an earlier life, Kent was a CBC news anchor, and later a foreign correspondent for NBC News, so he brings a world view to a portfolio where all the major issues have international implications.

While Environment is nominally a line department, it has really become a central agency. One of Jim Prentice's major concerns before his departure was the hit to its reputation that Canada was taking worldwide on climate change, notably because of the oilsands.

As a professional communicator, one of Kent's roles will be to do a better job of getting Canada's message out: Canada accounts for less than two per cent of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions, and the oilsands account for only five per cent of that. By contrast, the coal-fired energy industry in the U.S. has a carbon footprint 62 times that of the Canadian oilsands. Not to put too fine a point on it, it's time climate-change activists around the globe stopped lying about Canada. Meantime, the Harper government supports the Copenhagen take-note accord of reducing emissions to 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020. But the issue remains grid-locked in Washington, with no prospect of congressional approval anytime soon -not as long there's a coal lobby.

Kent's other task will be to try to get Ottawa and the provinces aligned on emissions reductions, no small task given that every single province has a different target. The obvious model for federal leadership is the acid-rain accord with the U.S., which marks its 20th anniversary in March. But before Brian Mulroney got a deal with the first George Bush, he got an agreement from the seven provinces east of Saskatchewan to reduce their sulphur-dioxide emissions by 50 per cent.

The more obvious pick for Environment would have been James Moore, who has proven as minister of heritage that he's ready to move up to the top tier of cabinet. But it might also be that he's done such a good job of outreach to cultural stakeholders that he couldn't be moved to another role before the next election.

"Let's put it this way," says one senior government official. "What cost us more seats in the last election, the environment or culture?" That's an easy one -the modest cultural cuts of $35 million announced at the start of the 2008 campaign cost the Conservatives a majority in Quebec, where they had been on track to win at least 30 seats but were fortunate to hold on to 10. Moore has repaired the damage, and then some. There's isn't a cultural announcement too small for him to post on his Facebook page.

The same can be said of Jason Kenney at Immigration -he's doing such a good job of outreach to multicultural communities that Harper would be taking leave of his senses to move him before an election.

The town of Ottawa will be very happy for Ted Menzies, one of the most personable and diligent members of the Conservative caucus, who has carried the complex file of pension reform as Jim Flaherty's parliamentary secretary.

The junior minister of finance normally gets oversight over the financial-services industry, and the Bank Act is up for renewal this year.

Menzies won't be able to have any dealings with Prentice, now vice-chair of CIBC, although the next time he runs into him at the airport he should thank him for the car and driver, as well as the Alberta vacancy that got him a much-deserved promotion.

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