Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cabinet shuffle not enough

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper put a fresh face on his cabinet Monday, a normal event in the course of political affairs. What he really needs to do, however, is put a fresh face on his agenda and style of governing.

Mr. Harper is not behind in the polls because Canadians don't like his cabinet, but because his government has grown tired and arrogant.

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It is time for new policies and an attitude adjustment.

The cabinet shuffle may signal a change in attitude and substance, not just appearances, but Canadians will be looking for real evidence the Harper government is turning over a new leaf before the next general election in 2015.

Many Canadians tolerated the Conservatives' abrasive style and clumsy public relations as long as the ship of state was sailing smoothly.

The unspoken quid pro quo seemed to be the prime minister could count on significant public support, providing the government didn't screw things up, particularly with the economy.

That tacit understanding has been undermined by a series of ethical breaches culminating in the Senate expenses scandal, which has raised serious questions about the prime minister's office, now the subject of an RCMP probe.

The state of the economy, Mr. Harper's favourite subject, is no longer the invincible sword that can be used to slay all opponents.

The list of Conservative transgressions is too long to list, but it includes everything from the robocall scandal to tainted appointments, such as naming a man jailed for fraud to a senior position in the prime minister's office.

Under Mr. Harper, scientists, government experts, deputy ministers and even members of Parliament have been muzzled unreasonably, causing a breakdown in the openness and transparency of government that are crucial to the proper functioning of a democratic state.

On this score, the Conservative government has treated the media with contempt and, by extension, the general public.

Mr. Harper is free to dislike reporters, but they perform an essential service, particularly in a parliamentary democracy, which is weaker than the American system in terms of checks and balances.

The prime minister likes to talk about accountability, so long as it doesn't involve talking to the media. He has held only a handful of press conferences in the last seven years and he grants even fewer interviews.

Manitoba's senior MP for the last seven years, Vic Toews, was also loath to talk to Manitobans through the media, partly because he felt he was not treated fairly. As a seasoned politician, however, it was his job to find a way to lead the discussion in Manitoba about federal initiatives, even if it involved talking to people he personally did not like.

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Mr. Toews is, however, entitled to a measure of gratitude for his long service to the people of Manitoba.

With Stephen Fletcher also stepping down from cabinet, the task of engaging Manitobans falls to two new cabinet ministers, Shelley Glover and Candace Bergen, both of whom have gained the prime minister's trust over the years.

But if they wish to gain the confidence of Manitobans, the new ministers must adopt a new posture by making themselves and their government available for full and frank dialogue about the nation's business.

For that to happen, Mr. Harper will have to loosen the apron strings so MPs and cabinet ministers can do their jobs.

The prime minister introduced new accountability legislation after he was first elected to government in 2006, but it needs to be updated and strengthened, particularly if he wants to convince Canadians he has heard them.

The new cabinet is younger and more diverse than the old one, but it will be just as tired and stale without a commitment to open, vibrant and transparent government.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 16, 2013 A6

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