Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Anatomy of a shuffle: Harper gives voters a stay-the-course cabinet

Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives with his wife, Laureen, for a cabinet shuffle at Rideau Hall on May 18, 2011.

Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters

If there was a message in Stephen Harper's cabinet choices, it was customer satisfaction.

Canadians picked the Harper government again - more of it, in fact - so Mr. Harper wasn't going to tell them the vehicle they'd chosen needed drastic repairs. Instead, he chose the auto industry's favourite post-sale marketing tactic: reinforcing the message that the customer made the right choice.

Now that he has the comfort of a four-year term, Mr. Harper could have chosen to set the stage for a new, expansive majority mandate with a revamped lineup. But there were few major changes. And where there were changes, there was a little message of reward, especially to voters in new fiefs: Voting Conservative means influence.

Story continues below advertisement

The pillars stayed put, such as Jim Flaherty in Finance. And there were no embarrassing demotions for ministers who created embarrassments. Bev Oda, the International Co-operation Minister who narrowly escaped a citation for contempt of the Commons, was left in the post because moving her would reinforce the message that she'd done something wrong.

To fill the high-profile vacancy in Foreign Affairs, Mr. Harper could have chosen an architect of his successful electoral strategy, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney; but Mr. Kenney's strong opinions and ideology would have been laden with symbolism about a new direction for foreign policy. Instead, Mr. Harper chose another trusted lieutenant, John Baird, as spokesman for a Stephen Harper foreign policy.

The biggest promotion went to newly elected Joe Oliver - the investment dealer who beat out veteran Liberal Joe Volpe in the multi-ethnic Toronto riding of Eglinton-Lawrence - who became the new Natural Resources Minister. He and his riding could easily serve as a symbol of what brought Mr. Harper a majority. So could Bal Gosal, who took another longtime Liberal seat in Toronto and becomes junior minister for sport.

The other rewards were mostly thrust upon Mr. Harper by geography.

Labrador's Peter Penashue, the Conservatives' only Newfoundland and Labrador MP, was made Intergovernmental Affairs Minister - where he'll surely be tasked with repairing relations with St. John's after the dysfunction they suffered when Danny Williams was premier. In Quebec, where the Conservatives elected only five MPs, Mr. Harper had little choice but to hand out four promotions, including returning once-fired minister Maxime Bernier to a junior minister's post for small business.

And From B.C., where the retirement of three cabinet ministers called for new blood, Mr. Harper chose Ed Fast for the big promotion, to Minister of International Trade.

Mr. Fast is something of a symbol himself. Though he's been rumoured for promotion before, he's never been a high-profile, eye-catching MP in his five years of work on the backbenches and parliamentary committees.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Harper passed over some of his star candidates elected May 2, such as Chris Alexander, the 42-year-old former ambassador to Afghanistan who was widely expected to get a cabinet post.

The Prime Minister has always appeared to favour quiet experience over flash. But in a new majority government, where he must manage a bigger caucus of MPs who all hope to be ministers one day, passing over stars also sends a message of discipline: that flashy newcomers won't get automatic promotion; that quiet, loyal plodding might eventually be rewarded; and that slow and steady wins the race.

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.