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Politics Harper’s cabinet blends new faces with old guard to tackle next election

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to the media after announcing his new cabinet in Ottawa on July 15, 2013.

DAVE CHAN/The Globe and Mail

Stephen Harper is girding for the next election with a huge cabinet shuffle that enlists and promotes younger ministers to fashion a team he can take into an expected 2015 campaign.

The shakeup of the Prime Minister's cabinet table – Mr. Harper called it a "generational change" – is an effort to rebrand the Conservative government as it struggles with sagging poll numbers and a damaging Senate expenses scandal during its eighth year in power.

He's kept the core of his economic team intact – Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Treasury Board President Tony Clement – signalling that the government remains fixed on cutting spending to balance the budget in time for the next trip to the ballot box. The Conservatives have promised major tax breaks that they want to campaign on in the next election, but they need surplus cash to make that work.

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At the same time, Mr. Harper beefed up his economic bench strength by promoting two younger strong communicators – Jason Kenney, who's dramatically reshaped Canada's immigration policies, and James Moore, who's refashioned government cultural policy to promote a more traditional view of Canadian history. They've been assigned key portofolios where they'll be expected to tackle looming issues that matter to the Conservatives, including remaking labour training and creating a more competitive wireless telecom sector.

The Conservatives took pains Monday to emphasize how they've brought new "strong and capable women" into the inner circle of government. Shelly Glover, a Winnipeg MP, becomes Canadian Heritage Minister, and Kellie Leitch, from Ontario, takes over as Minister of both Labour and Status of Women. Candice Bergen, MP for Manitoba's Portage-Lisgar riding, becomes Minister of State for Social Development, and Michelle Rempel, from Calgary, assumes responsibility for Western Economic Diversification.

The overall number of women in the cabinet has barely budged, though. There are 12 women in the 39-member cabinet. There were 10 after a 2011 shuffle and 11 following a 2008 shuffle.

Monday's shuffle – among the biggest since Mr. Harper took power in 2006 – was clearly designed to create a narrative about how there's more to the Conservative government than what Canadians have seen to date. In all, there are eight new faces in cabinet.

"The team Canadians elected in 2011 is deep and it is talented," Mr. Harper said. "Many younger members of Parliament have earned more responsibility and are ready for more responsibility," he said. The average age of older MPs who left cabinet in this shuffle exceeded 62 years.

"On balance, the government has been successful. That's why we've been re-elected twice with increased – with increased support each time, but obviously we're always looking at ways we can continue to evolve to address new challenges and to improve our performance."

The Prime Minister said he'll follow up the shuffle with "a renewed policy agenda" in a Speech from the Throne this fall, suggesting the Tories will set out a new to-do list for the remaining two years before the expected 2015 election.

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Mr. Harper has had a difficult year. Several Senate appointees have come under fire for their expense claims, a controversy that has claimed the Prime Minister's chief of staff Nigel Wright. The government has tried, and repeatedly failed, to clinch a long-awaited free trade deal with the European Union.

Despite the major changes, roughly one-quarter of the cabinet remains unchanged, including Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and International Trade Minister Ed Fast, who remains tasked with signing new trade deals that the government has made a pillar of its economic policy.

Mr. Kenney takes on the difficult task of remaking Canada's job training program as the minister in charge of the renamed Employment and Social Development Department (formerly Human Resources and Skills Development Canada). Both provinces and employers must be convinced to sign on to the new program that Ottawa sprung on them in the spring 2013 budget, when the Conservatives announced they wanted greater say in how federal training dollars were spent.

The Calgary MP will retain the job of ethnic outreach czar for the government, a post that brings him into contact with new Canadians and helped the party win its majority in the last election.

As the new Industry Minister, Mr. Moore will be immediately plunged into Ottawa's efforts to ensure a fourth wireless player in every regional market across the country.

Also, Peter MacKay, who's served as Defence Minister since 2007, moved to Justice. His departure from the military post helps the Conservatives put more distance between their government and the F-35 debacle where, as the federal Auditor-General reported last year, the Tories picked the fighter jet without due regard for price and availability.

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Mr. Harper's choices for government House Leader and Minister Responsible for Democratic Reform suggest he's ready to play hardball with the opposition and restless Tory backbenchers. He is keeping the combative Peter Van Loan as House Leader and appointing another Tory pitbull, young MP Pierre Poilievre, as Minister Responsible for Democratic Reform.

Alberta MP Brent Rathgeber, who quit the Conservative caucus after the Prime Minister's Office interfered with his private member's bill, said he's not pleased by Mr. Van Loan's or Mr. Poilievre's assignments. "With keeping the House Leader in place and promoting Pierre to Minister of State in charge of Democratic Reform, I don't see any realistic prospect of there being any parliamentary reform or increased role for backbenchers or free votes or even meaningful vetting of legislation in committees. I don't see any of that happening with this current structure. I see more of the same. In fact, if anything, the command and control structure will probably get tighter."

All signs suggest the Conservative's fall Throne Speech will focus on the unfinished business of economic reforms that have become a mainstay for a government with little money to spend but a desire to make Canada more competitive. It should wrap together labour market changes to attract skilled foreigners faster, find more jobs for aboriginals, close loopholes that allow too many temporary overseas workers, and enact the new job skills grant announced in Budget 2013. It will include references to the government's planned Expressions of Interest matchmaker system for more quickly locating skilled immigrants, as well as concerted efforts to find new markets for Canadian petroleum.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said he believes nothing has really changed.

"It is clear that the only minister who has any power in this government is the Prime Minister. Today's shuffle does not change that," he said in a statement.

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