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With cabinet shuffle, Harper builds up his economic front

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet with Governor General David Johnston following a swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Stephen Harper engineered a significant shakeup of his economic team during his first majority government cabinet shuffle, a move that remakes much of the lineup of ministers dedicated to what he has called his most important file.

It's not entirely a break from the Prime Minister's election pledge to delivery continuity and stability because the core of the economic team stays put: Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and junior finance minister Ted Menzies remain in their posts.

Still, Wednesday's shuffle changes the ministers responsible for a range of key economic portfolios, including Industry, International Trade, Natural Resources, Transport, Treasury Board and Small Business.

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Overall, the cabinet moves shift three big guns to key roles. Two of these are veterans of Mike Harris's Ontario government. Ottawa's John Baird moves to Foreign Affairs and Muskoka's Tony Clement heads to Treasury Board to curb spending - while Quebec lieutenant Christian Paradis gets a bigger profile at Industry.

The political considerations behind reshuffling the economic team reflect how important these files are for Mr. Harper. He's stocked the positions with people he trusts to follow his marching orders, in some cases shifting incumbents such as Mr. Clement to make way for others such as Mr. Paradis, whose appointment is part of a woo-Quebec strategy.

Mr. Harper's economic challenges are numerous. He must rebuild his reputation as a fiscal and economic conservative following years of deep deficits, a record round of stimulus spending and two high-profile rejections of foreign takeovers that left Canada looking protectionist.

The Prime Minister has to cut billions of dollars from operations in order to balance the budget within four years - a task the Tories insist can be done by cutting fat rather than program spending.

He also has to strengthen international trade ties in an increasingly turbulent global market. The Conservatives have set a goal of concluding two major free-trade deals in the next two years: one with the European Union by 2012 and another with India by 2013.

Mr. Baird's Foreign Affairs mandate will have a key economic component too - with looming Canada-U.S. talks on a border security deal aimed at speeding bilateral commerce through a common protective perimeter.

The elevation of Mr. Paradis to Industry was the biggest surprise. The small-town lawyer, a major backer of his province's pariah asbestos industry, is being promoted to help Mr. Harper reach out to Quebeckers after losing six seats there. The Tories are betting the surge in NDP support was a fluke and that they can redirect voters tired of the separatist Bloc Québécois to their corner.

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Like every prime minister, Mr. Harper had to walk a careful tightrope in building a cabinet, balancing regions to reflect seat gains in the Toronto area and in Newfoundland against the need for sufficient women and minorities. The solution included bringing popular Quebec MP Maxime Bernier to the cabinet table, three years after he quit a minister's post in disgrace for leaving NATO documents at his then-girlfriend's house.

These calculations have also delivered new expertise: a minister with closer ties to Bay Street. Joe Oliver, a former investment banker and stock market regulator, is the new Natural Resources Minister and will be charged with selling off Atomic Energy Canada Ltd.

One minister whose toil wasn't rewarded with a more plum post was Jason Kenney. He remains at Immigration despite his dogged efforts at reaching out to new Canadian voters - years of effort that helped the Conservatives clinch a majority.

The Calgary MP nevertheless got a promotion of sorts, being appointed the chair of the cabinet committee on operations. This body functions as a major gatekeeper for government decisions and gives Mr. Kenney more internal power - but also a heftier behind-the-scenes workload. He's also now a member of the priorities and planning committee.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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