Skip to main content

What key messages has Stephen Harper tried to send with his cabinet selection, and how can he continue advancing those messages when Parliament returns?

Greg Lyle (former chief of staff for Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon and adviser to Ontario Premier Mike Harris): This is a bold shuffle drawing a clear break with the first Harper administration.

This shuffle is first and foremost a strong signal to Ontario. Stephen Harper appreciates his gains in the province in the last election but also recognizes he needs to show action on the economy if he wants to do even better.

Story continues below advertisement

Second, it is a strong message to women. With women increasingly willing to take a chance on the Tories, Mr. Harper took a chance on three new women.

Third, placing Jim Prentice in Environment is critical. Mr. Prentice has a reputation as the government's most competent and pragmatic minister. Placing him in this portfolio suggests the government is prepared to turn the page and start anew.

What's missing from this shuffle is a willingness to give the same sort of chances to MPs from critical ethno-cultural communities that the Prime Minister gave to women. Mr. Harper has a reputation as a tough guy, but several weak performers from the first term were left in Cabinet holding positions that could have been used to reach out to communities like Chinese-Canadian and the Sikhs. The failure to select ministers from these key ethno-cultural groups could come back to haunt the Tories.

So the table is set. What now?

Job number one is to execute on the economy. The government needs to be seen to be listening to public concerns and then to be busy responding to those concerns.

The government also needs to execute on the environment both in terms of showing it shares the public's concerns and then demonstrating a commitment through action. Environmentalists are looking for a government that has a big-picture. They are looking for a minister to be their champion. Unfortunately, Mr. Prentice's first step was to define the environment as an economic ministry. That does not send the clear message of commitment environmentalists are looking for.

On both the environment and the economy, the government should do its best to stay above the partisan fray. Taking shots at the opposition hurts the government's credibility on motive. Ministers need to get out of Ottawa and onto the local six o'clock news where they can be seen listening and addressing local concerns directly and not through the combat of Question Period.

Story continues below advertisement

Looking ahead, the Tories need to start thinking about Quebec once the provincial election is over. The party needs to understand that the ADQ vote in the last election was not a right-wing vote; it was a protest vote just like Mike Harris in 1995. But where Mr. Harris used policies like welfare reform and tax cuts to connect, Mario Dumont used identity politics.

Jean Charest got that. He has embraced the insecurity of the besieged sovereignist battleground voters with his citizenship initiatives and soft nationalism while Mr. Dumont has dabbled with ill-considered right wing reforms.

The Tories got on the wrong side of identity politics. They failed to understand that arts and culture lead to identity politics (not just in Quebec, but especially in Quebec). Step one to re-engaging in Quebec is to define a Tory arts policy centred on celebrating identity and then move on to other issues.

This shuffle is a good start to getting a handle on the economy and environment and to reach out to women. But the Conservatives need to do more if they want to build on their ethno-cultural success and restart their stalled momentum in Quebec.

Scott Reid (former communications director for Paul Martin): You would have thought that, in the face of a massive financial crisis and the failure to secure a desired majority mandate, Stephen Harper would have sent a message of frugality, economic priority and humility. In fact, he only even attempted to signal the second of those three - and even there his actions contradicted his words.

Here's what Mr. Harper said about his cabinet choices: "Obviously we have tried to move some of our strongest ministers into key economic portfolios. Obviously, the economy, as I said in the election campaign, will be our number one priority." Exactly right. The economy must be the government's highest priority and clearly you want those most capable in your most sensitive portfolios.

Story continues below advertisement

But look past what he said and concentrate on what he actually did. Leaving Jim Flaherty at Finance shows only a commitment to continuity, not competence. As Minister of Finance, Mr. Flaherty presided over this government's squandering of the federal surplus. He dismantled structural budget-planning measures put in place to protect the federal treasury. We are now on the brink of deficit. He has taken the country from record job creation and economic growth to a massive shed of manufacturing jobs and an almost certain recession. And worst of all, for no good reason other than an old rivalry with his provincial opponent Dalton McGuinty, he told the global financial community that Ontario was the last place in the world to invest.

So by what measure does Mr. Flaherty's performance merit reward? The only thing that can be fairly said about his appointment is that it will not further spook irrational markets with the spectre of change. But let's be honest here: The Finance portfolio is propping up the credibility of the minister, not the other way around.

The other startling choice that contradicts the government's intended message is the selection of Lawrence Cannon at Foreign Affairs. Bluntly put, he's not up to it. Given the international dimension to this current credit crisis, foreign ministers will play an important role in helping guide the global economy back to stability. Jim Prentice should have been placed there. In the absence of David Emerson, Mr. Prentice is the most able of this government's front bench. Yet he's been taken from an economic portfolio and rewarded with Environment - a ministry that this government could hardly care less about. It is truly puzzling and at complete variance with the stated emphasis and focus of this government. The country needs Jim Prentice; Mr. Harper apparently doesn't want his help.

As for frugality and humility, they were in short supply on Thursday. At a time when a small, focused and apolitical effort was called for, Mr. Harper chose to create a large, lumbering and self-congratulatory executive team. He expanded the fleet of ministerial limos significantly and he offered no message of restraint, no suggestion that the government would be asked to sacrifice immediately as a pre-condition to the sacrifices it will no doubt soon request of the Canadian public.

There was not a single symbolic gesture to indicate that the government was willing to tighten down on itself - no reduced cabinet size, no spending freeze at the political level, no dimunition in ministerial budgets. As for humility, Mr. Harper couldn't even find the will to remove Gerry Ritz from his agriculture portfolio after hurtfully joking about lives lost to the wisteria scare. How's that for lessons learned?

Some will suggest this analysis is partisanly motivated. In all honesty, it is not. A cabinet that had actually met the lone priority of economic emphasis that Mr. Harper claimed would have deserved and received praise. This effort does not. It has succeeded in winning media applause but frankly, that applause is unearned. Any objective consideration of the choices made and the choices overlooked would have produced a large note of disappointment.

As for how to continue in the same mold once Parliament returns? If the Prime Minister wishes to remain true to form he'll probably boost ministerial expense accounts and build a statue to himself in the foyer of the House of Commons. This was a truly dispiriting launch to this government's efforts to show apolitical leadership during a time of economic peril. The messages spoken told one story; the decisions taken told another.

Gerald Caplan (former NDP campaign manager): It's entirely impossible to know how Stephen Harper intends to run his new government. But he has two relatively simple choices.

Mr. Harper can continue to monopolize the most concentrated one-man government in the country's history and make his new cabinet the same Potemkin Village as he demanded his first be - all facade, run on the shortest of short leashes, his ministers mostly eunuchs publicly humiliated on a daily basis, all important decisions made by the PMO; in fact even most minor decisions made by the PMO in an exercise that will long define the perils of ludicrous micromanaging.

From this vantage point, whether, for example, Lawrence Cannon "has a diplomatic bearing" - as The Globe's Lawrence Martin assures us he has - is of the utmost irrelevance. Mr. Cannon will be the boss's parrot, the organ grinder's monkey - choose your image and help yourself to others.

Nor does it matter that the cabinet has swollen from 31 to 38. All we know for sure is that it will cost a great deal more money for upkeep than its predecessor, yet may have no more influence than my dear Uncle Albert, may he rest in peace.

Equally, his new team can continue to play the same kind of dirty, slimy, smear-mongering, shamefully divisive partisan politics that characterized Mr. Harper's first term, led publicly by his own pointed example. From this vantage point, it matters not that the loathsome Peter Van Loan has been replaced as House leader by Jay Hill or that Ontario-bashing Ontarian Jim Flaherty remains in Finance or that the pugnacious arrogance of John Baird has been moved -elevated? - to Transport, which has billions in infrastructure to hand out. All of them played their unseemly roles orchestrated by one man, and will continue to do so. The question is only the nature of those roles.

As a card-carrying knee-jerk liberal - hopeful in the face of all contrary evidence that the better angels of our nature are raring to go, if unleashed - I am prepared to believe that even Mr. Van Loan, Mr. Flaherty and Mr. Baird - not to mention The Big Gusher himself - are potentially capable of some modest human decency. As of this moment, we have few clues as to Mr. Harper's inclinations.

If Mr. Harper were as smart as he loves to think he is - let's just ignore the last election campaign, shall we? - he'd realize that the best CEOs pick the best managers they can, give them directions, and let them go. (Let's ignore whether they're objectively the best, or even very good; he hasn't infinite choice). Treating senior managers like untrustworthy school kids garners its appropriate reward.

If he had any sense of the Canadian consensus, he'd know Canadians hate the vicious partisanship of his first term. That's one reason they love Barack Obama, and why Mr. Harper got a second minority government.

Both these complete turnarounds in Mr. Harper's governing style would really be extremely easy to implement - if it weren't for him. We'll soon see the real character of the man.

Report an error

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at