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Prime Minister Stephen Harper. (Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper. (Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

John Ibbitson

Minimalist shuffle shows Harper has his team in place Add to ...

Apart from his utter contempt for the purported wisdom of armchair political strategists, there is another good reason why Stephen Harper’s cabinet shuffle was more minimalist than music by Steve Reich.

On all the major files – the key priorities for this government through the fall and next spring – the Prime Minister’s team is in place and doing its job. One can applaud or abhor the direction of the Harper government, but the cabinet is generally performing as a cabinet should – especially in a world where so much power is tightly held by the Prime Minister himself.

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The first and foremost priority is to stay on track toward a balanced budget, which is the finance minister’s job. No one doubts Jim Flaherty’s ability to handle that task. Mr. Flaherty is on his way to becoming Canada’s longest serving finance minister.

The government’s other great priority, the one by which it will judge itself and be judged, is expanding trade. Even before Wednesday’s announcement, there was widespread expectation within the government and the public service that on this front stability would trump change.

International Trade Minister Ed Fast has worked hard and effectively to shepherd the European Union trade negotiations and to pave the way for Canada’s entry into the Trans Pacific Partnership talks. The fact that Nigel Wright, Mr. Harper’s chief of staff, came in to close the deal with the Americans on TPP was no reflection on Mr. Fast; negotiations of such crucial importance were bound to eventually become a White House-Langevin Bloc affair.

John Baird is a highly regarded foreign affairs minister. (Several senior diplomats report that, for the first time with this government, they feel they are talking to a foreign minister who has the ear of the Prime Minister.) Joe Oliver, if a bit over-the-top at times, is a passionate advocate of new pipelines, and Peter Kent has been a good and faithful servant at Environment.

It was never likely that Mr. Harper would shake up a team that was doing exactly what he wants them to do: pulling out all stops to expand trade, especially resource exports to Asia.

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is second only to Mr. Flaherty in importance within the government, having transformed immigration policy and delivered millions of immigrant votes to the Conservatives. Mr. Harper wouldn’t move him unless Mr. Kenney demanded to be moved.

Defence procurement is a thorny issue. Much has been written about Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s prospects, but the biggest and most controversial contract, the F-35 fighter acquisition, has been shunted to Public Works, where Rona Ambrose is said to enjoy the Prime Minister’s confidence. Nothing else that’s happening at Defence is now considered a first-tier priority.

Most other portfolios are also second-tier. With the Tories’ crime agenda largely in place, there was no urgent need to shuffle Justice Minister Rob Nicholson – who was, in any case, doing a capable job – or Public Safety Minister Vic Toews – despite his mishandling of the Internet access legislation.

Ministers such as Gerry Ritz at Agriculture (any decision on the future of supply management is years away), Leona Aglukkaq at Health (the funding formula is in place), Tony Clement at Treasury Board (the cuts to the public service are moving along) will not be the face of this government over the coming months. There was no need to disrupt their departments by shuffling just for the sake of shuffling.

Your correspondent did mistakenly think one minister was vulnerable who turned out not to be. The government plans to launch major reforms aimed at improving First Nation education on reserves. Buy-in from at least some aboriginal leaders on the pipeline proposals would be a huge publicity coup for the government. Issues surrounding Arctic sovereignty will increase in urgency as polar nations assert their claims.

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister John Duncan has been in uncertain health. Not everyone was confident he would survive the shuffle. But Mr. Harper is said to have great respect for Mr. Duncan, who in any case holds down one of only two Tory seats on Vancouver Island, a vital and difficult battleground for Conservatives. He stays.

As do they all, now that Ms. Oda is no more. There are many on the opposition benches and in the media who don’t think much of Stephen Harper’s cabinet. He, however, appears to like it just fine.

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