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Harper's cabinet strategy Add to ...

What key messages has Stephen Harper tried to send with his cabinet selection, and how can he continue advancing those messages when Parliament returns?

Greg Lyle (former chief of staff for Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon and adviser to Ontario Premier Mike Harris): This is a bold shuffle drawing a clear break with the first Harper administration.

This shuffle is first and foremost a strong signal to Ontario. Stephen Harper appreciates his gains in the province in the last election but also recognizes he needs to show action on the economy if he wants to do even better.

Second, it is a strong message to women. With women increasingly willing to take a chance on the Tories, Mr. Harper took a chance on three new women.

Third, placing Jim Prentice in Environment is critical. Mr. Prentice has a reputation as the government's most competent and pragmatic minister. Placing him in this portfolio suggests the government is prepared to turn the page and start anew.

What's missing from this shuffle is a willingness to give the same sort of chances to MPs from critical ethno-cultural communities that the Prime Minister gave to women. Mr. Harper has a reputation as a tough guy, but several weak performers from the first term were left in Cabinet holding positions that could have been used to reach out to communities like Chinese-Canadian and the Sikhs. The failure to select ministers from these key ethno-cultural groups could come back to haunt the Tories.

So the table is set. What now?

Job number one is to execute on the economy. The government needs to be seen to be listening to public concerns and then to be busy responding to those concerns.

The government also needs to execute on the environment both in terms of showing it shares the public's concerns and then demonstrating a commitment through action. Environmentalists are looking for a government that has a big-picture. They are looking for a minister to be their champion. Unfortunately, Mr. Prentice's first step was to define the environment as an economic ministry. That does not send the clear message of commitment environmentalists are looking for.

On both the environment and the economy, the government should do its best to stay above the partisan fray. Taking shots at the opposition hurts the government's credibility on motive. Ministers need to get out of Ottawa and onto the local six o'clock news where they can be seen listening and addressing local concerns directly and not through the combat of Question Period.

Looking ahead, the Tories need to start thinking about Quebec once the provincial election is over. The party needs to understand that the ADQ vote in the last election was not a right-wing vote; it was a protest vote just like Mike Harris in 1995. But where Mr. Harris used policies like welfare reform and tax cuts to connect, Mario Dumont used identity politics.

Jean Charest got that. He has embraced the insecurity of the besieged sovereignist battleground voters with his citizenship initiatives and soft nationalism while Mr. Dumont has dabbled with ill-considered right wing reforms.

The Tories got on the wrong side of identity politics. They failed to understand that arts and culture lead to identity politics (not just in Quebec, but especially in Quebec). Step one to re-engaging in Quebec is to define a Tory arts policy centred on celebrating identity and then move on to other issues.

This shuffle is a good start to getting a handle on the economy and environment and to reach out to women. But the Conservatives need to do more if they want to build on their ethno-cultural success and restart their stalled momentum in Quebec.

Scott Reid (former communications director for Paul Martin): You would have thought that, in the face of a massive financial crisis and the failure to secure a desired majority mandate, Stephen Harper would have sent a message of frugality, economic priority and humility. In fact, he only even attempted to signal the second of those three - and even there his actions contradicted his words.

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