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Conservative MP Julian Fantino speaks to members of the defence and security industries about procurement of the F35 joint strike fighter in Ottawa, Friday March 16, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Conservative MP Julian Fantino speaks to members of the defence and security industries about procurement of the F35 joint strike fighter in Ottawa, Friday March 16, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Fantino to replace Oda in slight cabinet shuffle Add to ...

Stephen Harper has chosen to keep his existing cabinet largely intact after the departure of Bev Oda, shunning a major shuffle and the prospect of change because he believes the government needs stability as it confronts big tasks from immigration overhauls to budget cuts.

With little fanfare and no advance notice to the media, the Prime Minister visited Rideau Hall on Wednesday to oversee the conferring of new assignments on just two ministers.

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Former Ontario top cop Julian Fantino was sworn in as the new minister responsible for CIDA, replacing Ms. Oda whose extravagant spending habits wore out her welcome in Ottawa.

Bernard Valcourt, the former Mulroney-era cabinet member now serving as the minister of state for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, was tapped Wednesday to also assume Mr. Fantino’s job as the associate minister of National Defence in charge of procurement.

The Prime Minister’s Office made it clear Wednesday there were no further shuffles looming despite rampant speculation by some in the media.

“This is it,” director of communications Andrew MacDougall said. “[There’s] lots of work ongoing in various ministries and we need continuity.”

This means that 14 months after he earned his first majority government, Mr. Harper is keeping his senior cabinet roster unchanged even though some individuals such as Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews have been badly beaten up over federal fumbles on jet-fighter procurement and a poorly crafted Internet surveillance bill.

Over his nearly 6 1/2 years in power, Mr. Harper has repeatedly demonstrated he is loath to be seen as responding to outside criticism; and that means he’s kept some ministers who might have otherwise lost their posts. For the Prime Minister, to react would be to hand victories to his opponents. If he privately thinks the criticism is justified, he’ll reassign the ministers at a later time when the heat is off.

In Mr. MacKay’s case, it’s very hard for the Prime Minister to demote a co-founder of the Conservative Party and the central face for the Tories in Atlantic Canada. There are few posts the Nova Scotian could be shuffled to which the PMO could sell as a lateral move – and even so this would trigger the need for a more complicated series of reassignments that Mr. Harper has no appetite for right now.

Still, Mr. Harper has shown himself surprisingly reluctant to move up new star performers such as Chris Alexander, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Defence, while he appears unable to cut loose older ministers who’ve had a long run such as Gordon O’Connor or Mr. Toews.

Mr. Fantino, a former commissioner of Ontario’s provincial police force, is used to running a large bureaucracy and the PMO expects him to knock heads at the Canadian International Development Agency, which is under pressure to become more results-oriented in aid-giving.

The agency gets relatively little media scrutiny but is really a handmaiden to the Harper government’s foreign-policy priorities. It’s been reshaped in recent years to refocus aid on a smaller group of countries – while cutting funding to non-governmental groups that the Tories dislike – and is being asked to more categorically explain and defend what results funding will achieve.

Still, Mr. Fantino, a former first responder, will feel at home at CIDA, which frequently plays a role in assisting with disaster relief.

His now-former job as associate defence minister in charge of military purchases is nowhere near as important as it was even a year ago.

Canada’s biggest military acquisitions – the $25-billion F-35 fighter jet and $35-billion shipbuilding project – have both been taken away from Defence and handed to the Department of Public Works under minister Rona Ambrose. Mr. Fantino was said to be frustrated with what he had left to work with in his defence post.

Cabinet shuffles are generally more important the closer the government gets to an election. As 2015 nears – the anticipated year of the next ballot – Mr. Harper will be under pressure to design a cabinet that he can demonstrate to voters is ready for the future. He’ll be expected to weed out ministers that are planning to retire and move up star performers who are ready to take on larger roles.

Ms. Oda’s resignation announcement this week sets the stage for two by-elections later this year – one in Calgary and one in Ontario.

The Tories will likely easily win both the Durham, Ont., and Calgary contests.

But if an appeal to the Supreme Court fails next week, voters will be heading back to the polls in a third riding: a Toronto seat that the Tories will be hard pressed to retain and could in fact fall to the Liberals.

Another by-election could be set in motion if the Supreme Court rules that too many voters improperly cast ballots in this Toronto riding during in the 2011 election. Conservative Ted Opitz narrowly won the Etobicoke-Centre seat at the time – defeating the Liberal incumbent by only 26 votes.

But this past May, an Ontario judge tossed out the results of the 2011 election in this riding on the grounds 79 voters were incorrectly certified to cast ballots. It’s this judgment that’s being appealed.

A mid-May 2012 poll suggested the Liberals would win the riding if an election were held.

Ms. Oda’s Durham seat – a riding at the eastern edge of the Greater Toronto Area – will be vacant as of July 31. A by-election must be held within six months. Erin O’Toole, a lawyer and former Canadian Forces member who flew as a tactical navigator on Sea King helicopters, is expected to run for the Tory nomination in Durham.

Former Calgary Centre Conservative MP Lee Richardson’s seat, which he relinquished in June, is due for a by-election by early December at the latest. It’s a certain victory for the Conservatives and there’s already a major battle shaping up to win the Tory nomination.

Follow on Twitter: @stevenchase

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