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Harper's reputation rests on new cabinet

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OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Stephen Harper is poised to put a face next week on the newly elected majority Conservative government when, in his first critical post-election move, he will announce a new cabinet.

Getting it right is important to Harper's own political reputation. He promised stability and managerial competence during the campaign.

Now he must deliver with a cabinet that gets the job done, mixes veterans with promising new talent, represents both sexes in the regional and ethnic makeup of Canada -- and stays out of political trouble.

In the days following his May 2 victory, Harper has huddled in his office, focused on how to accomplish this task. It won't be easy.

He faces some tough choices. He's got too much talent from Ontario, and not enough from Quebec. There are some holes to fill from British Columbia because of ministerial departures.

He needs to appoint and promote more women to fix the balance around the table.

And six portfolios are vacant, either because the ministers retired or were defeated. Two of them are critical -- foreign affairs and Treasury Board.

Here are the factors that Harper is juggling:

The big guns

Harper has come to rely on a small group of trusted ministers as his core group of political lieutenants. The key question now is whether to keep all of them in their current portfolios.

Jim Flaherty, after five years in finance, is expected to stay there and introduce yet another budget in the Commons in June.

John Baird was made the Tories' House Leader in the last session of the minority Parliament, a bid to ensure that the government's agenda cleared the hurdles put up by the opposition. Baird is one of Harper's stars. Expect him to return to a main portfolio, perhaps Treasury Board.

Jason Kenney, at immigration, is another star who deserves a promotion. He is dubbed the "curry in a hurry" minister for his exhaustive work in travelling the country, convincing new Canadians to support the Conservative party. He also could be pegged for foreign affairs.

Tony Clement, at industry, was at the centre of action in the last year -- the potash foreign takeover decision, the long-form census, the CRTC, gas prices -- and is regarded as highly competent. Harper values his work at industry but might need him elsewhere.

Peter MacKay, at defence, is popular with the troops. With the military pullout in Afghanistan set for July, it would be surprising if he is moved.

Peter Kent, appointed to environment in January, likely will return there.

The Ontario connection

Harper was first elected to Parliament as a member of the western-based Reform party. Steadily, after the merger with the Progressive Conservatives and several elections, it is clear the Ontario wing of the caucus has the greatest influence.

That won't change. Along with Flaherty, Baird, Clement and Kent, voters can expect other Ontario MPs like Rob Nicholson, Peter Van Loan and Julian Fantino to return to key positions.

Quebec's fading influence

The Tories, who had 11 of Quebec's 75 seats prior to the election campaign, have been reduced to five. In addition to defeating Lawrence Cannon, voters put the boot to two other ministers -- Jean-Pierre Blackburn (veterans affairs) and Josee Verner (intergovernmental affairs).

The province, which for decades held immense clout at the cabinet table, is now under-represented.

Of the five MPs who remain in caucus, only two stand out as front-bench material. Christian Paradis, currently natural resources minister, is highly regarded and will either keep his job or get promoted.

Maxime Bernier, the former foreign affairs minister who quit after leaving sensitive NATO documents at his girlfriend's apartment, likely will be back in cabinet. However, he has a habit of speaking his mind too freely. That might hold him back from a high-profile post.

Meanwhile, Dennis Lebel, currently a minister of state, likely will be back in cabinet -- though perhaps in a junior spot.

The regions

Harper lost two heavyweights from British Columbia: Stockwell Day and Chuck Strahl, who retired. The province needs more clout.

One obvious solution is to promote James Moore, now in heritage, to a more high-profile spot. Expect his star to rise.

Veteran B.C. MP John Duncan, now Indian affairs minister, is also assured a spot back in cabinet, probably in the same portfolio.

In Alberta, 27 of the 28 ridings are once again represented by Tory MPs. Harper and Kenney are the Calgary MPs who give the province its influence in cabinet. Other ministers are likely to return -- Diane Ablonczy, Rona Ambrose and Ted Menzies.

James Rajotte, a widely respected Tory backbencher, is in line to finally be appointed to cabinet.

From Saskatchewan, Gerry Ritz likely will return as agriculture minister.

In Atlantic Canada, the predictions are easy. The Tories' sole MP from Newfoundland, rookie Peter Penashue will be in cabinet. Gail Shea, from Prince Edward Island, also will be back, possibly in fisheries. Peter MacKay will represent Nova Scotia. And from New Brunswick, it's a good bet that Harper will appoint Bernard Valcourt, who served in Brian Mulroney's cabinet.

In the North, Leona Aglukkaq has been returned in her Nunavut riding and is expected back in cabinet -- though with major federal-provincial health-care negotiations pending, not necessarily as health minister.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 14, 2011 A17

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