The deft choices in Stephen Harper’s cabinet

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Sun Media, Friday, May 20, 2011

It was the Holiday Inn cabinet shuffle — no surprises. There were a few Senate surprises, but that’s another story.

For the shuffle, there is a rule of cabinet making that a prime minister can only work with what he’s got. And what Stephen Harper’s got is 73 MPs from Ontario, which gave him his majority; and five from Quebec, which didn’t.

Thus, the headline in Montreal’s La Presse Thursday: Ontario 15, Quebec 4. A sidebar noted that as “consolation,” four out of five Quebecers made cabinet, a batting average of 80%, while only 20% of the Ontario Conservative caucus got cars and drivers in Wednesday’s shuffle.

And what Quebec got for its four members was significant clout. Christian Paradis was promoted to industry, and Denis Lebel got transport and infrastructure, meaning he gets to recommend what to do about replacing the Champlain Bridge connecting Montreal to the South Shore, a bridge that’s been under repair since it was built in the 1960s, and which needs to be replaced at a cost of $1 billion.

All the backbenchers who didn’t get promoted to cabinet will be cheering the appointment to veterans’ affairs of Steven Blaney, from Levis, across the river from Quebec City, one of the most popular members of the Conservative caucus. He got the call because Bernard Genereux, who had been slated for a senior post, lost a recount to one of the NDP newbies in Riviere-du-Loup.

And Maxime Bernier, who didn’t bring his girlfriend to Rideau Hall this time, got small business and tourism. As a free marketer, that’s right up his alley. His riding of Beauce is famous as the entrepreneurial home of small and medium-sized business. A perfect fit.

Queen’s Park Three

From Ontario, the major players are the Queen’s Park Three — Jim Flaherty, John Baird and Tony Clement who left the provincial legislature to join Harper in government in the class of 2006.

There was no way Harper was going to move Flaherty out of finance. He got five budgets through a minority House, a record, and will have no trouble passing his sixth once in a majority Parliament. He’s the government’s best messenger on how Canada came safely through the economic storm, and happened to be the guy at the wheel.

John Baird has been Harper’s go-to guy for hot files since he shaped the Federal Accountability Act at treasury board in 2006.

At environment, he came to the government’s rescue after Rona Ambrose got taken down in a series of drive-by shootings by climate change activists. At transport, he moved $40 billion of infrastructure money out the door. As House leader in the last session, he gave the opposition parties plenty to reckon with in a toxic House.

At foreign affairs, he begins with an understanding he has one client — the prime minister. He also has one of the best departments in the government, a central agency that regards itself as the institutional repository of Canadian foreign policy.

However, next time they brief the PM on the Middle East, it would be a good idea if Israel was on the map of the region they show him.

As for Tony Clement, he gets the unenviable task of finding several billion dollars of program spending cuts that were announced but unspecified in Flaherty’s March budget.

But please, Tony, don’t announce them on Twitter.

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