The predictable clichés aside – “shuffling chairs on the Titanic,” “the fish rots from the head, and they didn't touch the head,” et cetera – the midterm cabinet shuffle merits a closer look.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has confirmed a couple of things. The leader of a party and movement dedicated to “smaller government” has an old-fashioned pol’s love for the elephantine: Ministers of state galore, all equipped with salaries, cars, drivers and extra staff. The shuffle continues the Harper tradition of big, bulky and multi-titled cabinets. From an organisational perspective, there is nothing lean, small or focused about this bunch. It's hard to preach restraint from such a lavish pulpit.
A big, diffuse cabinet actually permits Mr. Harper to continue to exercise maximum control, although it must be said that Nigel Wright’s departure as chief of staff has left a gap that a dedicated loyalist like Ray Novak simply can’t fill. To keep the kind of control and direction Mr. Harper obviously wants requires talent at the centre, talent that goes beyond loyalty. Ministers and MPs need to respect as well as fear the direction from the centre. Mr Wright had that until his demise, and Mr Harper’s PMO lacks a real intellectual leader.
Also notable are the ministers who didn't change: Jim Flaherty, Tony Clement, Edward Fast, Joe Oliver, John Baird, and Bernard Valcourt in the increasingly difficult Aboriginal Affairs portfolio. The economic direction and message of the government won’t change, and its direction will be maintained. James Moore will get a crack at a senior economic ministry and will deal with telecom and competition issues. Kevin Sorenson is a well-liked MP and committee chair whose loyalty has been rewarded once Ted Menzies announced he wasn't running again. And James Rajotte, the effective and more independent-minded MP from Edmonton, has been overlooked again.
The command structures of any cabinet are Finance and Treasury Board, and there’s no change there. The only thing that would lead to change would be a turn in Mr. Flaherty’s health, or Mr. Clement somehow feeling the whiff of a draft for him to take over the Ontario Progressive Conservative party. Mr. Flaherty insists he is well, and so does Tim Hudak.
John Baird held off the rumours about Jason Kenney taking over. Mr. Baird likes his job at Foreign Affairs, and Mr. Kenney’s ill-concealed ambition might have worked against him. He turned Citizenship and Immigration into a highly political portfolio, and had his finger in a number of foreign-affairs pies. His wings have been clipped. He will be staying home, but still taking on a huge task at the catch-all Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. He will throw himself into the job with gusto once he's recovered from Mr. Baird’s victory.
The switch between Peter Mackay and Rob Nicholson solved two problems. The Defence portfolio is less about building morale and spending money nowadays than it is about managing expectations down. Rob Nicholson is not so much a big-picture guy as he is a dedicated stickler for detail. Rest assured: expectations will go down. Mr. Mackay will now get to dispense the patronage that everyone understands: naming judges. Once a Crown Attorney himself, he knows the challenges, and he also knows that Defence is no longer going to be as much fun.
So, size confirmed, continuity assured, and some gnawing ambitions both deterred and encouraged. There is nothing more difficult to manage than a minister removed in mid-term. Peter Kent and Gary Goodyear will pledge eternal loyalty but won’t be happy campers. And those who thought they should be in and aren’t will continue to deal with their mood swings.
The new arrivals are Mr. Harper’s effort to show that he has lots of talent waiting to be rewarded. Much will be made of the number of women in the cabinet. But they are hardly being given a huge place at the economic table.
There are no huge surprises here, and no indication that Mr. Harper was prepared to take any risks, or give a major new responsibility to someone in whose talent and judgment he had confidence.
And for those who think that we are about to see a kinder, gentler, less partisan tone only need consider the elevation of Pierre Polievre as the new Minister of Democratic Reform. Mr. Polievre is without question the mean-spirited Master of the Message. And Peter Van Loan's staying on as House Leader is a guarantee that the closure machine will continue chewing through the opposition.
Mr. Harper has concluded that his government needs to give some new people a chance, but that he is not at any great risk. He thinks steadiness of economic management will be a key argument in the next election, and that the team he has will give him the backing he needs. Those who continue to argue that Mr. Harper is contemplating retirement before the next election will have difficulty reading any such thing into this mid-term change. For all the tweets and rumors as to when the shuffle would be, and who would be affected, there’s less change afoot that you might think. The Harper Revolution continues its slow, steady crawl.
Bob Rae is a member of Parliament, and former interim Liberal leader and NDP Premier of Ontario.