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The Conservatives' new day in office began with some of the Liberals' old political tricks.

With breathtaking insouciance, Prime Minister Stephen Harper jettisoned, or at least delayed, his promise to only elect senators and swallowed past denunciations of MPs crossing the floor of the House of Commons to take cabinet posts with another party.

First, he appointed his party's campaign co-chair, Michael Fortier, to the cabinet via the Senate. Then he talked former Liberal industry minister David Emerson into joining his cabinet as International Trade Minister.

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Just a few weeks ago, Mr. Emerson was beating up on Conservatives, carrying the Liberal banner as the party's most important cabinet minister in British Columbia. Not content with the favours shown him by Paul Martin, Mr. Emerson accepted new ones from Mr. Harper and, in the process,

gave the proverbial finger to the electors of Vancouver who sent him to Ottawa as a Liberal. So much for the ethics of someone who said one thing yesterday, and must now utter quite different things tomorrow.

Using the Senate for political purposes and offering cabinet posts to lure political switchers were Liberal tricks and, until yesterday, were always denounced by the Conservatives, the self-described party of higher principle and exemplary virtue.

Mr. Harper defended the tricks, just as the Liberals usually did, on the grounds of broadening his government. Montreal was without a single Conservative MP. The unelected Mr. Fortier will fill that gap, Mr. Harper said, and will seek a seat in the next election. Vancouver also lacked a Tory MP. Hence the invitation to Mr. Emerson, although there were Tories in other Lower Mainland seats, including the estimable James Moore from Port Moody.

Mr. Moore, however, became the victim of numbers in a cabinet of only 27 ministers, down from 39 under Paul Martin. A clutch of Conservative MPs -- including James Rajotte, Jason Kenney and Diane Ablonczy of Alberta, Mr. Moore and James Hill of B.C., and Scott Reid and a few others of Ontario -- got squeezed from the cabinet by this numbers game. The flip side of the putative advantage of a leaner, cheaper and focused cabinet was the exclusion of some of the party's best young talent.

Mr. Harper's cabinet gets stronger, at least on a per capita basis, the farther west you go in Canada. There are 10 ministers (including Mr. Harper) from Western Canada and nine from Ontario, but only five from Quebec and three from Atlantic Canada. The cabinet is also largely white and male, with only six women and two visible minorities. From the perspectives of gender, ethnicity and region, it mocks Mr. Harper's assertion that his cabinet reflects Canada.

Those who loved the Mike Harris/Ernie Eves governments in Ontario will like this Harper cabinet, since three ministers from that era will figure prominently in Conservative Ottawa: James Flaherty at Finance, John Baird at Treasury Board and Tony Clement at Health. They are all experienced in governing in a cabinet rather short of having run anything. Mind you, if the Harris/Eves years gave you the shakes for having slashed programs and bequeathing a deficit, you might feel rather differently.

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In contrast to the Martin government that overwhelmed itself in a sea of priorities, this Harper one seems focused on five short-term ones. They are, as Mr. Harper explained yesterday: an Accountability Act ostensibly to clean up a corrupt federal government; a GST tax cut; a tough-on-crime package; a waiting-times guarantee for patients; and a plan to give money to parents and institutions to provide child-care spaces.

The key ministers on these files will be Mr. Flaherty (Finance), Vic Toews (Attorney-General), Mr. Clement (Health) and Mr. Baird (Treasury Board).

Another minister handed a scalding potato was Edmonton's Rona Ambrose, who, as Environment Minister, has to somehow extricate Canada from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change while developing some marginally credible "made in Canada" alternative.

Ms. Ambrose once worked as a civil servant in Alberta, and seven ministers served in provincial governments. Ms. Ambrose, those seven ministers, Mr. Harper himself and the nationalist Quebec ministers make this cabinet arguably the most province-friendly since Wilfrid Laurier attracted provincial Liberal heavyweights to his "ministry of all the talents" in 1896.

The cabinet's composition, therefore, signals to provinces that Mr. Harper is serious about rectifying the "fiscal imbalance," an idea articulated by premiers, notably from Quebec, that Ottawa has too much money and the provinces too little, relative to their respective responsibilities. The Conservative platform was magnificently and purposefully vague about how this "imbalance" would be eliminated.

To widen the beachhead in Quebec, Mr. Harper needs to deliver on this promise, while taking care that he does not become perceived elsewhere as, in Pierre Trudeau's famous description of Conservative leader Joe Clark, a "head waiter for the premiers."

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Mr. Fortier has pledged to run for the Conservatives in the next election. Mr. Harper obviously hopes that, by dealing with the "fiscal imbalance" and creating political momentum across the country, other candidates of note will help the Conservatives drive up support in Quebec.

If the Harper Conservatives succeed in that objective, they will replace the Liberals as the federalist alternative in Quebec -- and become the country's natural governing party.

The political history of Canada suggests, however, that the natural governing party is the one that speaks for the whole country through the federal government, not as a reflection of the composite desires of every province.

jsimpson@globeandmail.com

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Jeffrey Simpson, The Globe and Mail's national affairs columnist, has won all three of Canada's leading literary prizes -- the Governor-General's award for non-fiction book writing, the National Magazine Award for political writing, and the National Newspaper Award for column writing (twice). He has also won the Hyman Solomon Award for excellence in public policy journalism. More

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