Thursday, January 04, 2007

Harper Shuffles Big Time Hoping to Buy Some Time

The personality issues are interesting gossip but the subtleties are where you will find the real substance of these Cabinet changes. Stephen Harper sharpens his focus, fixes some problems and I believe he enhances his Cabinet’s capacity too.

My guess is he is trying to delay the inevitable election from this spring to the fall with this shift in focus and this significant shuffle. He needs to buy some time to show he can govern affirmatively and not just be an alternative to the old Liberal regime.

The recent Liberal leadership change to Dion has seen public move beyond the angst and anger at the old Liberals. Change is in the air but who represent change is undecided given recent poll results with the Libs and Cons in a dead heat.

This desire to delay a federal election gives Charest elbow room to go to the polls in Quebec first with the support of a favourable Harper Budget. The polls are not positive for any party right now and too close to call. Harper wants some time to bring up the Cons numbers to where he can feel comfortable going into an election. There is not a clear consensus from the polls that the public wants an earlier election either and the opposition parties are all far from ready.

The shuffle give a sharper governance focus with Rona Ambrose in Intergovernmental Affairs and responsibility for the Western Economic Diversification. The MSM will harp on where she came “from” but the real story is where she is “going.”

This is a very smart strategic move by the Prime Minister as it speaks to the Ambrose strengths and takes advantage of her political credibility, especially in Alberta. Lots of fed-prov complexity looming and a need for real relationship building here. Ambrose will be good at it and will thrive in this new role.

Baird in Environment will get in trouble quickly if he keeps his pit bull approach to politics especially with the sophisticated ENGOs and the industry sectors. If he makes some significant serious changes quickly that are more closely aligned with the values and concerns of Canadians he will be one of the most effective Harper Ministers. If the Clean Air Act culture of hype and hyperbole ("smog and mirrors")persists with no serious political engagement, then Baird will be the new Ambrose. Expect his courage, capability, influence and adaptability to be tested very quickly.

Nicholson in Justice and Toews out will not be reassuring to the religious right and the future of their social conservative policy agenda. It signals that Harper does not want a focus on social conservative issues so expect Nicholson to put a lid on it until after the next election. Toews in Treasury Board tells me the new Budget and planning for 2007 is virtually a done deal by Baird already. Toews will likely be a caretaker on a short leash from the Prime Minister who is going to be the only real power in Treasury Board going forward.

The sleeper issue is the new focus on Seniors with another Senator appointed to Cabinet. With Marjory LeBreton’s appointment we can expect some serious new attention to this neglected sector of Harper's former Alliance/Reform base. The fear is that these folks are significantly disenchanted with the Harper government and could stayh home next election. This mean we can expect some tax reforms and program goodies in the pending Budget to overcome the perception of political neglect and the impact of the Income Trust decision on these fixed income seniors.

Keeping Prentice in place is the smartest “move” overall in this shuffle. I was right about Prentice in an earlier post but wrong on Rajotte being called to “the show.” Glad about the former, sad about the latter.

The rest is more like deck chair changes of no real consequence but it is good to see more women in and the smart politics of more Quebec involvement too. Not all of the problems have been fixed, like Defence and Heritage where there are some very hot buttons pending on procurement processes. The mean spirited recent Heritage social program cuts will come home to roost with political consequences too.

The overarching open question still is has the PM learn to share authority and responsibility or is he still going be the THE government and the de facto Minister of Everything!