A cabinet shuffle in the Harper government is pending. Much is made of such shuffles, but more significant are less publicized changes in the Prime Minister’s Office.
The PMO is where the power lies and it has been the chief source of angst recently with the resignation of Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, as well as the protests of caucus members against PMO dictates.
For clues as to whether Mr. Harper is about to change course, look no further than at changes to his inner sanctum. What you find is no real change at all. As his new chief of staff, Mr. Harper has appointed the ultimate loyalist and insider, Ray Novak. Now reports say he is ready to bring in another long-standing pillar of the status quo to a top PMO job. That would be the party’s campaign director, Jenni Byrne.
Ms. Byrne joined the Reform Party as a teenager, and as evidenced by the Conservatives’ victorious electoral performance in 2011, she is a young woman with many skills. But for party members pushing for a more open and democratic approach, her appointment will signal the opposite. Most any Tory will tell you that out of all who have served on the Harper team, Ms. Byrne ranks as the most viscerally partisan and aggressive. She operates like she is running a boot camp.
Another place to look for change in the governing style is Mr. Harper’s communications shop, which, on account of its capacity for misinformation, is lower on credibility than even in normal times. But there is no sign, as yet, of any major change there.
As for the cabinet shuffle, it will see many changes. But its two most powerful figures, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, will remain in their posts. Lower-level ministers in Harper cabinets have never been known to wield much power.
As he has often demonstrated, Mr. Harper is not one to bow to pressure when cornered. His inclination is to batten down the hatches. His weakness, as one commentator succinctly put it, is that he governs like he is prime minister of a party rather than a country. Hyper-partisan overreach, more than policy direction, is at the root of most of the controversies his government has faced.
But to look at his electoral record, which is what he most cares about, is to see that the billy-club style has paid dividends. It’s one reason he is unlikely to change. The other is that this modus operandi is in his DNA.
Should Ms. Byrne be given a top post alongside Mr. Novak, watch for caucus reaction. Tory MPs are now inclined to be far more assertive than they have been. Witness Senator Hugh Segal, who is currently siding with Liberals in a bid to stop passage of a Conservative private member’s bill that would impose draconian requirements on labour unions to disclose financial information.
A Conservative who has served in the PMO told me the media shouldn’t jump to conclusions about people like Mr. Novak and Ms. Byrne. He said he has seen Mr. Novak take the PM aside and challenge him on certain files. He’s not just a yes man, he said. As for the communications apparatchiks, they’re under orders to do their propaganda routines. Their jobs are at stake.
Ms. Byrne is a soulmate and former partner of the Conservatives’ Question Period hatchet man, the piercingly articulate Pierre Poilievre. His skill is in taking a question from an opposition member and turning it around into a pointed attack on that member’s party. It’s his idea of how parliamentary accountability should work.
But the boss loves it. Like Ms. Byrne, Mr. Poilievre is said to be in line for a new post. There is a good chance he will be given a cabinet spot in the coming shuffle. It will be another sign that instead of changing its ways, the government is intent on entrenching them.