The shuffling of deck chairs

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper has installed eight new smiles, and plenty of old ones, to greet him at this year’s Conservative Party’s national policy convention, which falls, thanks to the gods of irony, on Halloween.

But Canadians need not wait for the pagan holiday to appreciate the dimension of change the new federal cabinet heralds. The tricks and the treats have been in the works for months; certainly, ever since public opinion polls started granting the youthful, would-be usurper, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, a commanding lead over dear, old Father Harper.

Following the swearing in on Monday, the PM described his shuffle thusly: “I think this is a good mixture of some young and promising talent we have in our caucus and some experienced hands. . .This fall, the government will move ahead with a renewed policy agenda set forward in a speech from the throne. . .And our new agenda will have new faces to bring it forward. The team Canadians elected. . .is deep and it is talented.”

Indeed, it is. It’s also huge – 39 cabinet ministers, in all, will sally forth across the land, preaching the virtues of small government to increasingly skeptical audiences who have, by now, grown accustomed to political spin masquerading as plain speech.

Still, the appointees, themselves, are auspicious picks. Comprising the cohort of newbies are: Chris Alexander, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration; Michelle Rempel,  Minister of State for Western Economic Diversification; Shelly Glover, Heritage Minister; Candice Bergen, Minister of State for Social Development; Kellie Leitch, Minister of Labour, Greg Rickford, Minister of State for Science and Technology; Kevin Sorenson, Minister of State for Finance; and Pierre Poilievre, Minister of Democratic Reform

Standing sturdily, right where they were, are Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, International Trade Minister Ed Fast and Treasury Board President Tony Clement. Meanwhile, some old standbys are moving on, including Peter MacKay, former Defence Minister, who assumes the Justice portfolio.

The question, of course, is what, if anything, do these personnel changes say about the promised “renewed policy agenda.” Many of the federal government’s signature plans and priorities have been stuck in neutral for more than a year.

Trade talks with the Europeans are going nowhere. Relations with Washington remain cordial, but cool. Keystone is but a wish to be contemplated. The new fighter jet project is all but grounded. And, despite Mr. Flaherty’s and his central bank’s best efforts, the Canadian economy, has not rebounded in convincing fashion from the downturns of the past decade.

These items crowd the list of the old agenda, and they are not going away. They are, in fact, the baggage Mr. Harper and his new cabinet must haul during the scant years before the next general election. Worse, the signs that Canadians are increasingly weary of having to watch their elected members carry this burden from one committee room to another, from one public announcement to another, are plentiful.

“A new poll shows the federal Liberals continue to pound the Conservatives, with Canadians saying for the first time leader Justin Trudeau would make a better prime minister then Stephen Harper,” The Montreal Gazette reported in June. “According to a new Léger Marketing poll, 27 per cent of Canadians now think Trudeau would be a better prime minister than Harper, who has a score of 23 per cent. New Democratic Party Leader Thomas Mulcair is seen as the best prime minister by 14 per cent. It’s the first time Léger has reached such a polling conclusion since Trudeau took over the party April 14, said Léger vice-president Christian Bourque. ‘It’s the Trudeau phenomenon,’ said Bourque. ‘In our polling it’s the first time that he’s. . .ahead of Stephen Harper.’”

If the prime minister hopes to improve his party’s standing among Canadians, he would be wise to grant both old and new faces around the cabinet table greater authority to offer fresh, even independent, perspectives on the issues that, for the moment, fall within their purview only titularly.

That would be the neatest trick, and a welcome treat, at this year’s Halloween policy gala.

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