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(Adrian Wyld)
(Adrian Wyld)

Jeffrey Simpson

A new cabinet remarkably like the old Add to ...

Canadians rejected change in the last election. Prime Minister Stephen Harper rejected change in his first post-election cabinet.

Not for him a sweeping restructuring of his ministry. Not for him chopping down dead cabinet wood. Not for him the changing of department structures. Not for him new faces in important places.

No, the Prime Minister, who said election night that Canadians do not like surprises, delivered on that promise again. He gave them a steady-as-she goes lot.

A couple of his most reliable ministers got shifted - John Baird to Foreign Affairs from House leader; Tony Clement from Industry to Treasury Board. But the other key ones stayed put: Jim Flaherty at Finance, Jason Kenney at Immigration, James Moore at Heritage, Vic Toews at Public Security, Rob Nicholson at Justice. Even wobbly ministers such as Bev Oda at CIDA stayed in place. So did ministers who, having been in cabinet for a number of years, never developed a public profile or a reputation for special competence.

Forget, too, any notion of the different style in the Commons. Mr. Baird's replacement as House leader, Peter Van Loan, had done the job before with the hard edge apparently preferred by the Prime Minister. The Baird-for-Van Loan shift means one Conservative thumper replaces another.

For a government about to try to get a handle on government spending, the signals were a trifle off key. This is Mr. Harper's largest cabinet, 39 members, for a period of forthcoming restraint. It is festooned, as many cabinets are these days, with baubles of ministries of state or assistant minister posts that come with car, staff, title and no power.

Put another way, the core of the cabinet remains the same; the outer rings changed. The only newcomers who, on paper, get big portfolios are Joe Oliver from Toronto at natural resources and Ed Fast from British Columbia at international trade. It's a cabinet heavily dominated by males in the top spots, with women tending to be in second- or third-tier posts, and new multicultural ministers given bauble positions rather than serious ones, presumably so they can learn the ropes.

The biggest winners were losers. Three defeated Conservative candidates - Larry Smith, Fabian Manning and Josée Verner - wound up in the Senate. Two of them (Messrs. Smith and Manning) had been in the Senate before, using that place as a launching pad for their failed attempts to get elected. When their electoral attempts fizzled, they wound up again in the Senate, thereby deepening the generalized and justifiable disillusionment with that body and the kind of people therein.

So much for Senate reform, an old rhetorical staple of Mr. Harper's before the allure and need to appoint senators beckoned. Real Senate reform, for political and constitutional reasons, is much easier to natter on about than to accomplish, as Mr. Harper has discovered if he did not know already. So it's patronage as usual in the Red Chamber for the Conservatives, as for the Liberals before them.

Quebec was always going to present a cabinet-making challenge, because it returned only five Conservative MPs. Two of them got reasonably senior posts, but the one that will grab the most public attention will be Maxime Bernier - "Mad Max," as Canadian diplomats used to call their former foreign minister.

He was given a bauble - minister of state for small business - presumably because he had to be in the cabinet somewhere, given the paucity of Conservative MPs for Quebec, without being anywhere near important decisions. As an economic libertarian, Mr. Bernier will find comfort with, and give comfort to, the small business lobby.

We have, therefore, a new cabinet remarkably like the old, in which confidence is reposed in only a handful of men, with many positions much more impressive on paper than in reality, with almost all decisions sorted out by the Prime Minister's Office, with no serious shakeups tried, based on a political judgment that continuity should trump change, that surprises are unwelcome, and that the electorate, or at least the portion that voted Conservative, should be given what it wanted: more of the same.

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