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Lawrence Martin

Harper’s cabinet shuffle is a good facelift, but what’s behind it? Add to ...

The faces have been changed, some for the better. As a result of Monday’s shuffle, the federal cabinet will be younger, have a greater female presence and be stacked with effective communicators.

Whether policies will be different is not at all certain. We’ll find out in the fall with the Throne Speech. As for the important question of attitude, no sign of change is apparent. The authoritarian and confrontational approach that has found the Prime Minister in repeated trouble, even with his own caucus, is not about to soften.

Among the good appointments were two that strengthened Stephen Harper’s economic team. He moved the highly capable James Moore to Industry and workaholic Jason Kenney to a new portfolio, Employment and Social Development, which might be called “Jobs.”

Peter MacKay will be a good fit for Justice. Chris Alexander, one of the young bright lights of the party, is well cast in Citizenship and Immigration. Quebecker Steven Blaney is a surprise appointment to Public Safety, but anything is an improvement over the departing man from the Cro-Magnon era, Mr. Crime and Punishment, Vic Toews.

For surprises, how about a long-time Manitoba policewoman, Shelley Glover, being put in charge of culture as Heritage Minister? Rona Ambrose has not had a distinguished record, but she gets another big portfolio as she moves from Public Works to Health. Leona Agglukaq moves to Environment, replacing Peter Kent. In this non-green government, it is not a portfolio to be wished on anyone. Being from the North will help her optics, but Ms. Agglukaq is not much of a retail politician.

It was considered well possible that, given the protests over his democratically deficient style, Mr. Harper would make an effort to mend fences. There was talk he might move someone such as the well-liked MP James Rajotte into the House Leader’s position to replace Peter-the-Pitbull Van Loan. That didn’t happen. Nor did he reach out, as some hoped, to the dissidents in caucus by promoting one of them to cabinet. He did put in place a new government whip with John Duncan replacing crusty old Gordon O’Connor.

But if you wanted a real signal of whether there would be a change of character in the way things are done, look no further than one of Monday’s big shockers. Mr. Harper appointed one of his most belligerent, thuggish MPs, Pierre Poilievre, as Minister of State for Democratic Reform. This in-your-face move was reminiscent of his naming Tony Clement head of the Treasury Board following the $50-million boondoggle in which funds were redirected from border infrastructure purposes to beautification projects in Mr. Clement’s riding.

With Mr. Poilievre, with Mr. Van Loan, with no big changes in the Prime Minister’s Office where the power really lies in this government, the PM obviously feels no change of style is necessary.

Having fallen to 30 per cent support from 40 per cent in the last election, the Tories have lost one quarter of their support. The base is behind the party, but not many others are.

Mr. Harper increased his female representation in cabinet to 12. That’s a record for any Canadian government and should help his appeal to that gender. The generational change, with the appointment of charismatic young performers like Michelle Rempel, is designed to help counter Justin Trudeau’s appeal.

But there is little suggestion in the shuffle that Mr. Harper wants to broaden the tent by reaching out to progressives. In the Labour portfolio, the highly partisan Kellie Leitch cannot be expected to alter the anti-labour pitch. Ms. Ambrose is not about to hit the reset button on health care. Joe Oliver remains in Natural Resources.

In Mr. Harper’s brief press conference Monday – the usual two questions in English, two in French and see ya later – he was asked whether he had hit the reset button.

He avoided a direct response. That was appropriate because while he had put new faces in the department-store window, decisions on what to sell were still to come.

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