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Cabinet shuffle designed to appeal to GTA voters

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during a news conference following a cabinet shuffle at Rideau Hall in Ottawa January 4, 2011.

BLAIR GABLE/Blair Gable/Reuters

Stephen Harper used a ministerial shuffle to send a message to the Greater Toronto Area, showing voters in what may be the most important battleground in the next election that backing Conservatives earns them greater influence at the cabinet table.

Mr. Harper promoted two Toronto-area MPs as the Tories gear up for a possible election campaign this year - one in which the Conservatives would be certain to target suburban seats in the Greater Toronto Area as part of their quest for a majority government.

Tuesday's cabinet shuffle, made necessary by the unexpected departure of former Environment Minister Jim Prentice from federal politics late last year, builds on a strategy to woo voters in the ridings that ring the city of Toronto from Burlington to Oshawa.

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Former Ontario Provincial Police commissioner Julian Fantino, who narrowly won the GTA seat of Vaughan for the Tories just five weeks ago, was handed the junior cabinet post of Minister of State for Seniors.

And Peter Kent, who represents the riding of Thornhill just north of Toronto, has been elevated to a full cabinet post as Minister of Environment - an advancement from his previous job as minister of state for foreign affairs.

With the prospects of political growth in Quebec weak, the Conservatives must scrape together more seats elsewhere in Canada if they want to win the 155 necessary for a majority government. The so-called 905 belt around Toronto is ripe with opportunity because it's home to about 10 seats that the Liberal incumbents won with 45 per cent of the vote or less.

The first clear window for an election will come with the government's 2011 budget in February or March. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has vowed to oppose the fiscal plan, but all three opposition parties would have to vote against it to defeat the minority Tory government.

Mr. Harper said he has no desire for an election now and prefers to focus on the slowly recovering economy. But, he added, he's ready for one if it comes.

"We know there is a threat of an election from the opposition. We don't like it but we take it seriously."

Tuesday's shuffle also saw Mr. Harper make veteran MP Diane Ablonczy Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Americas and Consular Affairs), leaving her former post of minister of state for seniors open for Mr. Fantino.

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The seniors portfolio gives Mr. Fantino a high-profile perch from which to address older Canadians, who tend to be among the most active voters in federal politics.

"Canada's seniors will be in good hands, thanks to the experience he has accumulated and the judgment he has demonstrated over his long and illustrious career of public service," Mr. Harper said of the former officer of the law.

The Prime Minister also elevated Southern Alberta MP Ted Menzies to a junior minister post as Minister of State (Finance), a reward for his work on retirement savings policy as parliamentary secretary to the Finance Minister. The job will support Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who remains busy with international meetings tied to the global economic recovery.

Mr. Fantino's Vaughan win in a November by-election last year ended 22 years of Liberal control over the riding north of Toronto.

The Tories hope Mr. Fantino and Mr. Kent will form the vanguard of a major political advance in Brampton, Mississauga and other communities adjacent to the City of Toronto. Their goal is to reduce the Liberal Party's grip on the GTA region to metro Toronto alone.

In an interview on Tuesday, Mr. Fantino said his appointment signifies how strongly the GTA's interests will be represented in federal decision-making circles.

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"It validates the fact there is strong representation [from]the Greater Toronto Area - the fact there is now a voice in cabinet on the Harper team that can bring those issues forward that are more local, more pertinent to the demographics and geography... of the Greater Toronto Area," Mr. Fantino said.

"As you know, the only thing that separates Toronto from say, Vaughan, is Steeles Avenue," he said, referring to a road that serves as a City of Toronto boundary line.

Cabinet newcomers

Former Ontario Provincial Police commissioner Julian Fantino won office in a late November, 2010, by-election. The Vaughan MP drew criticism in early December for invoking Nazism when alleging the opposition Liberals had spread lies about him. "I call it the Hitler Theory. You tell a lie often enough you hope that some people will believe it."

Former Global TV anchor and journalist Peter Kent was elected as a Tory MP for Thornhill in 2008. He spent more than 40 years working as a writer, reporter, producer, anchor and senior executive in Canada, the United States and elsewhere.

Diane Ablonczy is a veteran MP first elected to the Commons in 1993 with the Reform Party. The Calgary-Nose Hill MP previously served as minister of state for seniors and minister of state for small business and tourism.

Ted Menzies, a farmer, was first elected as the Tory MP for Macleod in 2004. Since 2007, he has served as parliamentary secretary to the Finance Minister and recently steered a federal effort to bolster retirement savings for Canadians.

Steve Chase

Steven Chase on the cabinet shuffle

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