The Shuffling the Deck that everyone else called a Cabinet could just as well have been called a stacking of the deck.

By Ray Rivers

BURLINGTON, ON.  July 18, 2013.  It’s was a good day for the Ottawa printing houses.  They were busy churning out new letterheads, business cards and other stationery.  The shredder trucks would have been seen, parked outside government offices so that each outgoing minister’s staff could destroy any incriminating evidence of their boss’s tenure, along with all that old letterhead.  And of course this was a field day for the pundits looking for a deeper meaning in it all.

Prime Ministers have always kept a fairly tight rein over their cabinet ministers for good reason. There is a danger that liberated, free-wheeling cabinet members might easily go off-message, do their own thing or even go rogue and contradict the PM. 

Does the public think that the Ministers have all the good ideas?  In normal times much government policy originates with the public service.  The minister is not irrelevant in this process, just not as significant as we’d expect from the title and ceremony.

During my time at Environment Canada, I had the privilege of drafting briefing material and speeches for my minister, Jean Charest.  He would personalize a speech but always stuck to the script I’d prepared.  A Minister’s speech is automatically policy, so I always made sure neither my Minister nor the PM would be blind-sided.  Brian Mulroney had adopted Pierre Trudeau’s practice of leaning on Cabinet committees and using the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office to co-ordinate policy – so everyone was kept in the loop and the policy was mainly what the PM wanted.  After all, the PM chooses his ministers.

Stephen Harper has taken control to new heights, even managing various ministries’ press releases and speeches.  So shuffle or no shuffle – it amounts to not much more than a hill of beans.  Policy will change only when the PM wants it to change. 

Sometimes a PM will bring in a new minister as a way of signaling changes, but make no mistake, it is still the PM making the policy.  I am not criticizing the PM for his focus on control – I think he is doing what he needs to do in our system of government, managing to ensure a consistent message and tone.

This Cabinet shuffle by the majority Conservative government saw eight new people added to the Cabinet, a few dropped, but the old guard is still firmly in place doing their old jobs at the key posts.  Flaherty will continue to articulate economic policy from his boss, Harper the economist.  Baird will continue with his party’s unbalanced foreign policy and Joe Oliver will keep on pushing the tar sands.  Expect the same old from the same old.

Given my passion for the environment, I was really pleased to see Peter Kent gone.  A good journalist in his day, he looked uncomfortable and almost pathetic as the ‘yes-man’ for Harper’s non-environment policy. 

The PM claims he is making a ‘generational change’ with this Cabinet, lowering the average age a full 4 years from 55 to 51.  That’s a generational change?  And, there are now more female cabinet ministers, which can’t be a bad thing for a party well-known for its boys in blue suits. 

It is customary for a government to shuffle a cabinet at the mid-point of its term, and Harper has certainly done that.  Just don’t expect this to mean anything will change in the way Stephen Harper runs the country. 

The only upside I see in the shuffle is that the Ottawa printing industry had a couple of good days.

Ray Rivers writes weekly on both federal and provincial politics, applying his more than 25 years as a federal bureaucrat after which he decided to write and has become a  political animator. Rivers was a Liberal candidate for provincial office in Burlington where he ran against Cam Jackson in 1995, the year Mike Harris and the Common Sense Revolution swept the province.  He is also currently the VP policy for the Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale Federal Liberal Electoral District


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