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A cautious set of picks that's unlikely to embarrass Harper

Stephen Harper has crafted a cabinet that reflects a mature prime minister skillfully balancing talent, experience, potential and political reality with only a soupçon of stiff-backed willfulness to remind us of his earlier years.

Maturity begets maturity, as the Prime Minister relied on his ablest veterans to keep the government on track and out of trouble.

The choices not only show Mr. Harper growing in his job after five years in it; they reveal as well the importance of picking former Bay Street executive Nigel Wright as chief of staff.

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Crafting a new cabinet is one the toughest jobs a head of government faces, and the chief of staff serves as his right hand during the process. In this case, Jenni Byrne, campaign manager and director of political operations for the Conservative Party; Ray Novak, a prime ministerial aide; Dimitri Soudas, director of communication; and Mr. Wright formed a tightly knit committee to vet cabinet prospects. The criterion was simple: A minister must be able to act as CEO of his or her department - although in fact the Prime Minister's Office tightly controls the activities of most cabinet ministers.

Mr. Wright typically emphasizes pragmatism over partisanship, which is why Mr. Harper brought him in to replace the more ideologically fervent Guy Giorno. That pragmatism is reflected in the cabinet they built together.

For the most important portfolios, Mr. Harper drew on the talents of ministers with more than decade of experience in government. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Treasury Board President Tony Clement all served in Ontario premier Mike Harris's cabinet and have proved themselves through five years of Conservative minority governments. They form the bedrock of the new administration.

Other ministers who know their turf were left to guard it, from Jason Kenney at Immigration (although he also gets to chair the powerful operations committee) to Vic Toews at Public Safety and Rob Nicholson at Justice.

Mr. Harper could have punished ministers who had caused him grief. But Peter MacKay stays in Defence despite having openly fought the government's decision to refuse extra landing spots to airlines from the United Arab Emirates, which cost Canada the use of a valuable military base.

And Environment Minister Peter Kent embarrassed and angered the Conservatives during the election campaign by saying the party should turf one of its candidates because of his apparent sympathy for the Tamil Tigers, which the Conservatives consider a terrorist organization. But Mr. Kent keeps his job.

Promoting political rookies to cabinet is always risky, and Mr. Harper for the most part avoided it. But Joe Oliver used to be head of the Ontario Securities Commission, so the Toronto MP got Natural Resources.

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And Labrador MP Peter Penashue, the former president of the Innu Nation, will discover that intergovernmental affairs ministers are kept on the shortest of leashes by the Prime Minister's Office, where the real face-to-face with the provinces takes place.

All in all, an astute, if cautious, set of picks. But Mr. Harper has never been able to resist poking a finger in his critics' eyes. The opposition parties crucified International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda for having a memo altered to kill funding to a foreign-aid group. But rather than bounce her from cabinet, Mr. Harper kept her where she was. So there.

And the Prime Minister clearly doesn't care about the optics of putting three defeated candidates into the Senate. They will help strengthen the Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador contingent in caucus, although NDP Leader Jack Layton and others are howling.

However well Mr. Harper may have chosen, there will be controversies and alarms; there always are. But it's hard, looking at this lot, to see where they will come from.

Thankfully, former foreign affairs minister Maxime Bernier - remember the classified documents left in the apartment of the girlfriend with ties to bikers? - is back as Minister of State for Small Business and Tourism. So there's always hope.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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