Good fix, good fit

Harper's shuffle could solve his environmental image problem

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Saturday, January 6, 2007

In the idiom of cabinet shuffles, the one on Thursday was a good fix. And a good fit.

The good fix was on the environment and climate change, which the Conservatives bungled in the October announcement of the Clean Air Act. With a new minister to replace Rona Ambrose, the government gets to begin the conversation over again. A new messenger with a new message.

The good fit was the choice of John Baird as the messenger.

He brings three attributes to the green file.

First, he's a strong communicator, and the Stephen Harper government's biggest failing on climate change has been communicating its seriousness of intent. In a blitz of interviews, Baird acknowledged the government had to do a better job, "both substantially and presentationally," as Brian Mulroney put it in a radio interview last month. Baird was also on the phone to the serious environmental stakeholders, saying let's work together. If the government is entitled to a restart, so are they. But they should also be on notice that if they want to be heard, they'd better not shout down the new minister as they did the last one. Baird will cut them dead.

Second, as president of the Treasury Board, Baird proved to be a skilled negotiator with the NDP in navigating the Accountability Act through a minority House. It will be Baird's job to get a deal with the NDP on amendments to the Clean Air bill. We're not just talking emissions- reduction targets and timelines, but cash in the budget.

Third, he's an attack dog, and not just an ankle biter, but one who goes right for the jugular. He will be delighted to remind the Liberals in general, and Stephane Dion in particular, of their abysmal failure on the environment and climate change.

That's what the prime minister meant on Thursday when he promised that Dion's free ride was almost over.

Just 37, Baird is young enough to represent generational change on a dossier Canadians now regard as the most important public-policy question facing the country. It's the weather, stupid. But he also has enough cabinet seasoning, in both Ottawa and Queen's Park, that he can be handed the most complex and challenging file at the cabinet table.

As for Ambrose, she gets to stay at that table, and in an important role as minister of intergovernmental affairs. She looked both happy and relieved at the swearing-in. And no wonder, intergovernmental affairs is where she worked her way up as a young official in the Alberta government. She got ambushed by environmental interest groups. But this time, she received a cordial welcome from her new provincial colleagues. Quebec's Bruno Pelletier was very quick to say that the Charest government did not consider her move a demotion, and looked forward to working with her.

But she just has to remember one rule in managing federal-provincial relations. She has only one client - the prime minister.

The PM is the lead minister on the top federal-provincial files - and in this case that's the fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces.

Ambrose knows this file, which is a good thing, because she won't have a long time to learn it. The evident hope and expectation is to get some money into the budget so that Harper and Jean Charest can say "problem solved" in time for the Quebec election expected in the spring. This is not a target for 2050, but for 2007. For Ambrose, it's a significant opportunity to remind Ottawa that prior to her mishaps and misfortune at Environment, she was regarded as one of the brightest and articulate members of the new government.

The other notable move was Rob Nicholson to Justice from House leader, with Vic Toews shuffled to Treasury Board. It's one thing to promote a tough crime package, quite another to muse about jail time for 11-year-olds, still another to take on the entire Canadian legal establishment in changes to the judicial appointments process. Nicholson, as pleasant as he is sure-handed, will be a more moderate messenger.

For the rest, Monte Solberg moves from Immigration to Human Resources, switching roles with Diane Finley, Peter Van Loan moves from Intergovernmental Affairs to House leader, and Marjory LeBreton takes on seniors as well as being government leader in the Senate.

And five Conservatives - Jason Kenney, Helena Guergis, Gerry Ritz, Christian Paradis and Jay Hill - get a car and driver as secretaries of state. These are all representational roles, with outreach to important constituencies, such as the multicultural communities in Kenney's case and Quebec farmers in the case of Paradis.

After the first swearing-in, Harper could come home and say, honey, I shrunk the cabinet. That was then, after the last election. This is now, before the next one.

 
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