Monday’s cabinet shuffle made one thing abundantly clear: Prime Minister Harper has doubled down on the economy. He intends to fight the next election in 2015 with a balanced budget and an economic record that drives Canadians to vote Conservative.
Who could blame him? It’s the same game plan that delivered a majority mandate in 2011. The Harper Government’s core brand attribute is strong economic management. As they say: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But a little fine-tuning never hurt.
While moving Jim Flaherty would have sent the strongest signal that Mr. Harper is serious about refreshing and re-energizing his government, doing so risked muddying the government’s economic waters. Mr. Flaherty has said repeatedly that he intends to steer Canada’s budget back to black. Mr. Harper will be banking on Mr. Flaherty to do so.
Mr. Harper did, however, make two substantial changes to his economic front bench by appointing two of his top performing ministers to key economic portfolios.
Jason Kenney moved from Immigration and Citizenship to Employment and Social Development. He has already tweeted that as minister he intends to solve the paradox of an economy with excess jobs when many Canadians are still looking for work.
Mr. Kenney will go from being known as the Minister for Curry in a Hurry to the Minister of Jobs Jobs Jobs. He already has several policy accomplishments under his belt and is a proven communicator. Mr. Harper will be counting on him to find new ways of getting more Canadians to work, while championing the government’s job creation record.
James Moore, who has done exceptionally well as Minister of Heritage and Official Languages, moves to Industry, where policy decisions have massive ramifications for the Canadian economy and Canadians’ pocketbooks. Foreign investment and Canada’s telecommunications sector are just two of the major policy dossiers that Mr. Moore will be piloting.
Combined, Messrs. Flaherty, Kenney, and Moore have been tasked with ensuring that Mr. Harper heads into the next election with a balanced budget, a strengthened economy, and with more Canadians at work.
Mr. Harper’s legacy projects remain unchanged. Minister of International Trade Ed Fast and Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver kept their portfolios. Both men have been assigned with steering key planks of the government’s economic agenda: the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the European Union and market diversification for Alberta’s oil sands, respectively. Either project has the potential to serve as Mr. Harper’s central proof-point that he has produced positive results for Canada’s economy.
If (or, as Mr. Harper surely hopes, when) accomplished, both projects will serve as the foundation for the prime minister’s legacy. It’s no surprise that both are rooted in the economy.
Much has been said about putting together an election-ready cabinet. There are certainly many fresh faces and new energy: Mr. Harper has appointed more women to cabinet than any other prime minister before him; he has doubled the number of ministers who are under 40 to six.
But new faces simply aren’t enough to change the channel on what has proven to be a trying year for this government. Rather, each minister, whether new or old, needs to be handed a mandate from the prime minister to develop and implement bold new ideas.
To properly and fully turn the page on a rocky year, Mr. Harper’s new cabinet must champion and drive a renewed agenda that connects with Canadians. Absent of fresh ideas, Mr. Harper runs too high a risk of allowing Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau to say that Mr. Harper and his team are tired and out of steam.
Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a principal at ENsight Canada. He has worked for the Ontario Progressive Conservative party.