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In picking John Duncan as whip, Harper revisits his Reform roots

Chief Government Whip John Duncan, shown in Ottawa on July 17, 2013, is one of only two remaining veterans of the 1993 Reform Party in the federal cabinet – the other being Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

DAVE CHAN/The Globe and Mail

In John Duncan's office, Stephen Harper looms large. A photo of the two men hangs on one wall. On another, there's a portrait of the Prime Minister, glancing to the right, smiling broadly and wearing a baseball hat with Vancouver Canucks colours.

Mr. Duncan had spotted the portrait during a tour of the city's Emily Carr University of Art and Design. He asked whether it was for sale. It was, so he bought it. The student artist had done similar works, too, of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. "She said, 'would you like the others?' " Mr. Duncan recalls. "I said, 'no thanks.' "

Some visitors don't recognize the portrait's smiling subject, Mr. Duncan says, but it's a familiar face to the 64-year-old British Columbia Conservative. He and Mr. Harper were each elected under the Reform wave of 1993. Now Mr. Duncan, his portrait and his photo are moving to Parliament's Centre Block, home of the government whip's office, after the Prime Minister promoted him in Monday's cabinet shuffle.

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They're now the only two cabinet ministers from the 1993 class of Reform MPs. Mr. Harper is turning to Mr. Duncan as his whip – the party disciplinarian tasked with maintaining order, juggling committee work and ensuring the passage of government bills – at a time when the government has struggled to pacify its restless backbench MPs, for whom Mr. Duncan has little sympathy. It's part of the job to support the team, he says.

"I've always been a low-maintenance guy that did my job. And so when there's people that are not doing their job, I'm always surprised," Mr. Duncan said in an interview with The Globe and Mail, when asked about his time on the backbench amid the unrest. "So, I never got involved in that end of things. Now I'm going to have to," he says, chuckling.

The Vancouver Island North MP was a forestry worker who knocked off an incumbent in 1993, winning the seat regularly until 2006, when he lost, only to win it back in 2008. He served 2 1/2 years as minister of aboriginal affairs, before resigning in February over a letter to a tax court on behalf of a constituent. It was considered inappropriate, given his role. After five months of exile, he was pulled back to the front bench.

Aside from Mr. Harper himself, five MPs remain from the 1993 Reform wave, and two have served as whip while in opposition. Yet only Mr. Duncan was appointed on Monday – another original Reformer, Diane Ablonczy, was removed from cabinet – though he doesn't think his Reform roots were a factor.

"We're all Conservatives, and have been since the merger. And I think my appointment actually had more to do with the length of time I've been in caucus than probably anything. They like somebody with whiskers in the position," he said.

Former MP Paul Forseth, a fellow B.C. Reformer elected in 1993, remembers Mr. Duncan as "a man of fewer words" who served as B.C. caucus chair. Fellow MPs "were basically quite pleased with the gentle style that he had," Mr. Forseth said. "But yet, if he said something, I think you could count on that it would be [done]."

One former disgruntled backbencher, Alberta MP Brent Rathgeber, expects little will change under Mr. Duncan. "Whether disregard for backbench complaints is instinctive or has been drilled into him, I don't know. Regardless, I suspect it's ever-present," said Mr. Rathgeber, who quit the Conservative caucus last month to sit as an Independent after his private member's bill was watered down by his own party.

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Mr. Duncan says he'll speak to his fellow MPs before deciding how, or if, he'll do things differently from his predecessor, 74-year-old Gordon O'Connor. "I haven't formulated any strong opinions at this point," he said, adding it was a veteran Mr. Harper was looking for – not necessarily a Reformer. Mr. Forseth said the dwindling Reform ranks are "just a sign of the gradual turnover," but that Mr. Duncan will be a low-key fit in the role, with more of what Mr. Forseth called a "connected touch" than Mr. O'Connor.

"I'd be very surprised if the issue of the whip blew up as some kind of a problem [under him]," said Mr. Forseth, who served as an MP until 2006. "He's just kind of steady as you go."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

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