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Prime Minister Stephen Harper, bottom right, and Governor General David Johnston look towards Conservative MP Peter Kent after he was sworn in as the new Minister of Environment during a cabinet shuffle at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Tuesday Jan. 4, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, bottom right, and Governor General David Johnston look towards Conservative MP Peter Kent after he was sworn in as the new Minister of Environment during a cabinet shuffle at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Tuesday Jan. 4, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Jeffrey Simpson

A changing climate - just not in cabinet Add to ...

The definition of utter loneliness in Stephen Harper's cabinet is to be minister of the environment - as Peter Kent is about to discover.

Environment ministers have no natural allies in any cabinet. Finance and Treasury Board think the environment minister a big spender. Natural Resources defends the energy industry against it. Agriculture and Fisheries consider it works against the economic interest of their client groups. Industry thinks environment a job-killer. Foreign Affairs wonders if the Environment department really knows anything about the world.

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To be without natural allies in a cabinet is one fate; to be the environment minister in a government that scarcely cares about the file is quite another. Worst of all, to be minister in a government whose principal environmental preoccupation is to do as little as possible on the most important international environmental file, climate change, and to protect the oil/tar sands at all costs gives new meaning to frustration.

With serious action ruled out in advance, the Harper government's environment minister must be a smooth talker. He must be prepared to repeat things that are demonstrably false - as in Canada will reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by 17 per cent by 2020 from 2005 levels - with a straight face while all those around you are cracking up in derision. When necessary, the minister must bluster.

Peter Kent, a former television presenter, should therefore fit the definition splendidly of what is required of a Harper government environment minister. Since all important decisions are taken by the Prime Minister anyway, it shouldn't matter that Mr. Kent has no background in the file nor has ever shown any interest in the issues. He is there to rag the puck, so to speak.

That is, assuming the United States doesn't do much about climate change. These days, the Obama administration has instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to begin imposing strict regulations on fossil-fuel plants, although in the best U.S. tradition these initial moves have been greeted with an array of lawsuits.

Nonetheless, if the Americans move, and if the Harper government actually believes what it has said (a very debatable proposition) about moving in parallel with the United States, something will have to give here. That would mean federal regulations on industrial emitters such as the coal and tar/oil sands, which this government has scurried away from since being elected.

Put matters another way, if the previous environment minister Jim Prentice couldn't move the climate change file alone, it beggars belief that Mr. Kent will be given a mandate for action. As we said, a smooth talker is what's required by the government.

Julian Fantino is hardly a smooth talker. Recently elected in suburban Toronto, he's been given the innocuous post of minister of state for seniors. Such a minister of state has very little functionally to do, except give speeches in front of seniors groups, during which Mr. Fantino will probably demonstrate by his very presence as former top cop in Ontario how committed the Harper government is to fighting crime.

Seniors are important for the Conservative political strategy, however, since older voters tend to vote Conservative more than do younger voters. Mr. Fantino is exactly the kind of aging, white male who votes strongly Conservative.

Another unimportant post is that of minister of state for finance, a job given Tuesday to Ted Menzies from Southern Alberta, one of the really nice guys in the House of Commons. He was, hands down, the parliamentary secretary every minister wanted. He now moves from being Jim Flaherty's parliamentary secretary to being his minister of state, a new title carrying many of the same duties.

Mr. Menzies, a farmer, might be the most popular MP in the Commons. In a cabinet of brawlers and scowlers, he's an open, funny, humane man who never takes himself too seriously and wouldn't know how to be nasty to an opponent even if he took lessons.

Mr. Menzies is a moderate in the Conservative political rainbow. He's one of only two Alberta Conservative MPs who came from the old Progressive Conservative side of the coalition, the rest having been Reformers.

In sum, the cabinet changes amounted to almost nothing. Changing the environment minister won't make anything happen there, and shuffling around ministers of state won't either. It must mean the Prime Minister is well satisfied with his ministry.

 

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