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New cabinet faces alone won’t repair damage Oda did to Tory brand

Bev Oda is leaving politics after having struck a serious blow to Stephen Harper's credibility as a careful caretaker of public funds.

The Prime Minister's challenge now is to undo the damage, starting with a cabinet shuffle, but by no means ending there.

In politics, there are two kinds of sins: those you commit in the eyes of your opponents, and those you commit in the eyes of your supporters. The latter sin is the one that lands you among the flames.

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When Ms. Oda changed the wording in a funding application, and then tried to cover up her responsibility for that change, the Liberals and NDP pounced on the misdemeanour with such excitement that her transgression helped bring down the government in March 2011.

But the Conservatives knew that voters weren't interested in such things. The election was always and only about the economy.

Just in case there was any lingering doubt about what the PM thought of the opposition howls, Mr. Harper reappointed Ms. Oda to her old job of Minister of International Co-operation after winning his majority.

There are conflicting assessments of how well she did that job. Some aid workers on the ground in Haiti praised Canada's response after the 2010 earthquake, crediting Ms. Oda's contribution. Others complained that the government was out of touch with the situation and held her in part responsible for bureaucratic snafus and misplaced priorities.

Ms. Oda shepherded the Conservatives' signature policy of increasing funding for maternal health in Third-World countries, but did a poor job of justifying (partly because it couldn't be justified) the Canadian government's decision to withhold funding for abortion services.

She successfully refocused foreign aid on a core group of most-needy countries, but it was difficult at times to understand why some countries were on the list, and other not.

None of that mattered after Ms. Oda switched hotels in London during a conference on immunizing Third-World children and racked up huge bills, including the infamous $16 glass of orange juice. It was not the first time she had carried herself about in excessive style; it would be the last.

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Nothing upsets a diehard Conservative like evidence that a government – especially a Conservative government – has reached that point where it feels it is entitled to its entitlements. Ms. Oda's posh tastes complemented Defence Minister Peter MacKay's use of a military helicopter to bring him home from a fishing vacation, and the tens of thousands of dollars in overtime that ministers' chauffeurs have been racking up.

Some of the criticism was over the top: very few people work as hard as a cabinet minister, or have such large responsibilities, for such relatively little pay. But that makes not the slightest difference in the eyes of the public, especially the Conservative base. Even Tory MPs have been publicly castigating the government for such reckless and arrogant spending.

There were already signs that Mr. Harper was planning a cabinet shuffle. A major rotation of deputy ministers is expected any week now. In the normal course of events, a shuffle would follow soon after, to give the new ministers time to master their briefs before Parliament returns in September.

No one expected Ms. Oda to survive that shuffle, including Ms. Oda.

But cabinet shuffles are of not the slightest interest to anyone outside the febrile confines of the political class. If Mr. Harper is to restore trust with those who gave him his majority government, especially with those true Tory believers who have been shaken by these abuses, then he will have to go farther: stricter spending limits and reporting requirements; smaller travel and entertainment budgets; fewer perks all around.

Cabinet ministers will grumble that the new restrictions make it eve n harder to do their job, but that won't matter. The Conservatives need to reestablish, especially among their own party faithful, that they are a tightfisted bunch who watch over every taxpayer-provided dime.

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Ms. Oda damaged that brand. It will take more than a few new faces in cabinet to repair it.

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