Cabinet shuffle will help PM in Quebec and Atlantic region

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Osprey, Saturday, August 18, 2007

Federal cabinet shuffles tend to play out on two stages, one national and the other regional, and this week's rearrangement of the chairs around Stephen Harper's big table was no exception. In moving Peter MacKay to Defence and Maxime Bernier to Foreign Affairs, the prime minister bolstered the communications flank of the Afghanistan mission in both official languages.

Where the national storyline had become one of collateral damage - the perceived differences between former Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor and Chief of the Defence Staff General Rick Hillier - it will now rotate to coverage of the mission itself. MacKay and Bernier will be expected to do what O'Connor couldn't do: communicate Canada's military and foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan.

And the regional storyline is one of Harper attempting to regain lost ground in the Atlantic provinces and Quebec by reinforcing his local political warlords.

In the Atlantic provinces, where the Tories have been pounded on the equalization-offshore resources issue, MacKay's job will be to rebuild and recoup between now and the next election, which under new fixed election legislation won't occur until October 2009, unless the minority government falls in the House in the meantime.

MacKay will also be home, in every sense of the word. He no longer will be physically conflicted by a schedule that puts him in Moscow one day and his home province of Nova Scotia the next. Support for the Afghan mission is high in the Atlantic region, with a disproportionate share of boots on the ground in Kandahar and assets on the ground in Atlantic Canada, notably the army base at Gagetown, N.B., and the naval base at Halifax.

MacKay also retains responsibility for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), which cuts a lot of cheques in the Atlantic region. MacKay will have his own boots on the ground, in his own region of the Atlantic provinces, in his own province of Nova Scotia and his own riding of Central Nova, where Green Party leader Elizabeth May will be running against him with a free pass from the Liberals as part of her non-aggression pact with Stephane Dion.

And in Quebec, the constant political flak on Afghanistan can only be expected to intensify as the famed Van Doos take the lead in Kandahar. There is finally an advocate of the mission, Max Bernier, who can make the case in French.

But leaving that aside, and looking down the political field, there are three Quebec byelections coming on Sept. 17, and in two of them off the island of Montreal, the Conservatives are the main opponent for the Bloc Quebecois.

Bernier, and Josee Verner at Heritage, will be significant assets to be deployed in the short term of the byelections. Verner also succeeds a minister, Bev Oda, who spoke no French. In Canada, a cultural minister who speaks no French isn't an asset to any government, and Oda was going in reverse in Quebec, where the cultural industries and lobbies are powerful and articulate vested interests.

Bernier and Verner are both media- friendly and media-savvy, and their promotions played as huge stories in the Quebec media. And while there are three other Quebec ministers in the Harper cabinet - Lawrence Cannon at Transport, Jean-Pierre Blackburn at Labour and Michael Fortier at Public Works - Bernier and Verner will be the main media actors in the month leading up to the byelections. Verner is particularly close to Quebec Opposition Leader Mario Dumont, whose conservative Action Democratique du Quebec will be helpful to les bleus in the two byelections in Quebec off Montreal island.

Beyond the byelections, there's a major year-long event coming up in Quebec 2008: the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City by Samuel de Champlain.

Referring to this pending anniversary in his famous Quebec City speech during the last campaign, Harper called Quebec "the heart of Canada." He had made the same comment in English, in Ottawa, on the first day of the 2006 election campaign.

Quebec 2008 represents a major opportunity for Harper and the Conservatives to position themselves as champions of Quebec's interests within the Canadian federation. Harper has already delivered on the major promises of his Quebec City speech, including a role for Quebec in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and recognition of the vertical fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces.

Dignitaries from around the world will be coming to Quebec City next year. Greeting them on the tarmac, and toasting them at banquets, will be the two lead ministers from the province, Josee Verner from Quebec City and Maxime Bernier from the Beauce, across the St. Lawrence River.

In Quebec 2008, national and regional politics will be one and the same.

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