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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)
Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

New voices, same sound bites in Harper's cabinet Add to ...

Do more women axiomatically give a government a different appeal? Do they act less aggressively in politics than men? Do they appear more “inclusive” and “empathetic,” to use two words of ghastly contemporary jargon? Do they bring a sensitivity to public issues that men usually lack? Do they encourage more women to vote for their party?

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This week’s cabinet shuffle promoted four women as ministers or ministers of state. If more women do change the sensitivity of a government and make it more appealing to female voters, then this shuffle will help Stephen Harper’s government, at least a little bit. And it needs help, since the government is less popular among women than among men.

The four women promoted – Shelly Glover, Kellie Leitch, Michelle Rempel and Candice Bergen – are all talented. No questions there. But they didn’t get promoted on talent alone. They are also fierce, combative partisans in a party led by someone who prizes these skills and, let it be said, in a parliamentary and media environment where such skills get an MP noticed.

You could put any of this quartet on any television talking heads show, or on any public platform, and they would spout the assigned lines with the best of them. That’s one of the reasons they got noticed at the top; that’s what they will be expected to do at a higher level.

They are just as verbally aggressive as any man in cabinet, and therefore will do nothing to change the tone of the Harper government. Put another way, the government will look slightly different, but sound exactly the same. The voice pitch will be a little higher, that’s all.

Slightly different is the right description for the post-shuffle government. The same male ministers who previously held the major portfolios carry on, led by Jim Flaherty at Finance and John Baird at Foreign Affairs. Nothing has changed at the top, in other words. A handful of veterans changed jobs – Rob Nicholson, Peter MacKay, James Moore and Jason Kenney. Changes have been made in the middle and lower ranks of the ministry, but any cabinet revolves around the prime minister, the finance minister and three or four others.

Cabinet shuffles are grist for the media mill but thin gruel for the majority of the population. Despite their best efforts, most ministers are incognito with the general public, regardless of the government. Occasionally, but only occasionally, someone will enter cabinet and make a big impact, but most shuffles produce the proverbial sound and fury that signifies very little in altering the direction and tone of the government. The young organizers and co-ordinators in the Prime Minister’s entourage will still be telling ministers what to do, when and where.

Put another way, the history of recent Canadian governments is strewn with cabinet shuffles intended to give the government of the day fresh energy, improved political appeal, new vision or whatever. However, the shuffles seldom actually achieve any of these objectives, much to the disappointment of those participating.

Any shuffle that promotes Pierre Poilievre, the attack dog MP from Ottawa, to a ministry of state (for democratic reform) and keeps the dour, disliked Peter Van Loan as House Leader is not a shuffle predicated on any change of style or comportment.

At least Peter Kent was dropped entirely, so that his embarrassing performance as environment minister will no longer be a lasso around the government’s neck. Mind you, Mr. Kent was given a poor script to read, and as skilled a newsreader as he once was, he couldn’t make that script sing.

Of perhaps only incidental interest was the cabinet’s size – 39 members in all, tying a record for cabinet bulge. This ministry includes 13 ministries of states – a hugely inflated number in no way justified by the responsibilities involved – in a government that is preaching restraint, laying off government employees by the thousands, eliminating or curtailing programs and portraying itself as fiscally virtuous. The government gets smaller, but the ministry gets larger. Go figure.

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