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Harper's talk of renewal, generational change masks status quo on steroids

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper's mid-summer cabinet shuffle had all the trappings of a major makeover, including a novel social media delivery platform choreographed in real time.

As each ministerial appointee emerged from their car Monday morning at Rideau Hall, the Prime Minister's Office would post the new cabinet assignment on Twitter.

Real-time news agencies ate it up, and it was no mistake that six of the first nine members named were women, as were two of the final three — capped by every network's favourite twinkling Tory, 33-year-old Michelle Rempel.

"Proud to be naming four new strong, capable women to the Ministry later on today," someone purporting to be Harper tweeted under his name in order to prime the pump before the revelations unfolded.

"Looking forward to welcoming 8 new faces to the Ministry this morning," the virtual prime minister added a moment later.

The exercise was a masterpiece in message control — a trademark of the Conservatives' seven-plus years in power — and thus was of a piece with the cabinet shuffle as a whole.

Harper has delivered the status quo on steroids.

While the prime minister spoke frankly of an autumn speech from the throne that will lay out "a renewed policy agenda," Harper's cabinet choices suggest it's full steam ahead into the blue yonder for the current agenda.

It makes for an interesting trajectory given all the predictable opposition allusions to rearranged deck chairs and the doomed Titanic.

On the weekend, as cabinet speculation peaked, an old Ottawa hand with deep Conservative ties suggested a single litmus test: If Jim Flaherty and John Baird moved, the shuffle could be considered "major in substance." Otherwise, the exercise was more political in nature and aimed at the 2015 election campaign.

Flaherty stayed put at Finance, and Baird is ensconced at Foreign Affairs.

The all-important cabinet priorities and planning committee, which Harper chairs and where all important decisions are made, retained all but one of its previous 12 members, while adding five new ones — four of whom were already in cabinet.

Jason Kenney, the powerful immigration minister, made perhaps the biggest splash, moving to a newly named Employment and Social Development department.

It will be Kenney's job to make good on the millions of dollars in government advertising already spent on that non-existent Canada Job Grant, which must still be negotiated with reluctant provincial governments and employers — each of whom are expected to pay a third.

Ed Fast stays at International Trade, despite the frustratingly slow pace of trade negotiations with Europe and others.

Joe Oliver, the grumpy warrior who gamely repeated PMO-penned lines last winter equating pipeline opponents with eco-terrorists, remains in place atop Natural Resources, a key driver in Harper's goal to establish Canada as a "global energy superpower."

Oliver's inflammatory rhetoric made oil and gas pipeline construction a target for every environmentally minded activist and many outsiders thought he'd be moved.

Instead, he's been flanked by new Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who had been a low-key communicator at Health.

Behind the scenes, Aglukkaq is known as a vocal advocate of northern resource development, not a fact likely to comfort environmentalists worried that Environment Canada already appeared to be playing a distant second fiddle to Natural Resources in the Harper hierarchy.

The cabinet shuffle was also predicted to provide some antidote the Senate expense scandal that has reached right into Harper's office through the actions of his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright. The RCMP are investigating the $90,000 Wright gave Sen. Mike Duffy to repay improper expense claims.

Harper's response appears to have been to appoint partisan pitbull Pierre Poilievre as the parliamentary secretary for democratic reform, and to leave unstaffed the position of government leader in the Senate.

Poilievre has a practised reputation for being nails on a chalkboard to his opponents' ears, not a role that lends itself to the consensus building that can ease democratic reform.

"Stephen Harper had a golden opportunity here to change but nothing that we saw today shows that the prime minister was ready to change direction," Megan Leslie, the NDP deputy leader, complained.

"Instead, he decided to double down on the same approach that saw his government beset by ethical scandals and lurching from crisis to crisis."

As for the prime minister's own style of politics, Harper was asked Monday if he himself needed to hit the reset button at the midpoint of his majority mandate. There was no introspection in his response.

"There has been a fair degree of continuity in the ministry over a period of time now since 2006," Harper said outside Rideau Hall.

"I think, on balance, the government has been successful. That's why we've been re-elected twice with increased support each time, but obviously we're always looking at ways we can continue to evolve to address new challenges and to improve our performance."

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/the-canadian-press/130715/harpers-talk-renewal-generational-change-masks-status-quo-st