Harper's adroit move

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National Post, Friday, June 27, 2008

OK, another Cabinet shuffle in which the main headline is about Quebec ministers. But Wednesday's mini-shuffle was mainly about filling a gap left by a Quebec minister, Maxime Bernier, who fell from grace harder than Icarus fell from the sky.

So, say hello to Michael Fortier, who takes a big step up to International Trade, as David Emerson becomes Bernier's permanent successor at Foreign Affairs. And welcome Christian Paradis, who replaces Fortier at Public Works, a cesspool of patronage and graveyard of many political careers.

The promotion of the popular James Moore, just turned 32, as junior minister for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games as well as Official Languages, will be welcomed in his city of Vancouver and sends an interesting message. In a sense, as a bilingual British Columbian, he is one of Trudeau's children.

So to the extent that there is regional resonance in the shuffle, it is all about Quebec and B. C., two provinces where the Conservatives hope to step up to a majority next election. The two Quebec moves return its Cabinet representation to five ministers, and the move of Fortier to Trade is particularly adroit on the part of Stephen Harper.

First, Fortier has a deep background in trade policy, going back to the 1980s when he advised the Bourassa government in Quebec on points of law in the Mulroney government's free-trade initiative with the United States.

Second, Fortier is one of two Quebec ministers, the other being Transport's Lawrence Cannon, on excellent personal terms with Quebec Premier Jean Charest.

And Charest is proposing a mutual recognition of professional credentials between Quebec and France, as well as a free-trade agreement between Canada and the European Union. The former could possibly occur around the margins of the Sommet de la Francophonie in Quebec City in October, while the latter is a longer-term vision thing. But a harmonious relationship between the Premier and the Trade Minister can't hurt.

Third, international trade is regarded as a prestigious and substantively important portfolio in Quebec, whose economy is highly dependent on trade. This is particularly true in Montreal, where

international companies make most of their sales outside Canada. What has long been true in manufacturing is increasingly true in services such as consulting engineering where, for example, SNCLavalin has a thriving global practice.

As the representative of Montreal in Cabinet, Fortier now becomes a powerhouse minister, no longer just a dispenser of patronage and pork at Public Works.

Fourth, Fortier was being sideswiped by headlines relating to patronage and influence-peddling at Public Works, a department which by its very nature may be incapable of reform. This was not advancing his goal of moving from the Senate to the House in a seat just outside Mont-real in the next campaign.

Paradis may discover that for himself at Public Works and Government Services -- the full title says it all about the political peril to which any head of that department is exposed. But he will remain as the francophone voice of agriculture, in which capacity he has effectively taunted the Bloc Quebecois in the Commons. And these rural Quebec seats outside Montreal are a crucial battleground in the next election.

Which leaves Max Bernier, who started this chain of events. If the moral of the story is be careful whom you sleep with, Bernier appears both chastened and unabashed.

While the shuffle was still playing on Wednesday's newscasts, Bernier held a campaign-style rally in the Beauce region he represents in the House. Bernier said he knew nothing of Julie Couillard's background as a biker's moll before their break-up, adding the briefing book he left behind at her place was not a numbered or sensitive document. So, it's now a game of he said, she said.

In the Westminster tradition, an MP who is forced to resign from Cabinet can redeem himself if he is re-elected by his constituents, especially with an increased majority. Harper may never want to see Bernier again, and he has no equity left in the Conservative caucus. But his father, Gilles, a longtime Tory MP, was known as King of the Beauce. If nothing else, Max Bernier has inherited the mantle of favourite son.

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