DAY’S APPOINTMENT A GAME CHANGER

As far as Cabinet shuffles go, today’s changes in “the Ministry” were fairly restrained. Nobody was dropped from Cabinet and only one person entered, Rob Moore from New Brunswick, as minister of state for Small Business and Tourism. 

This is consistent with Prime Minister Harper’s approach of avoiding dramatic changes that might signal, even inadvertently, any indecision and instability of the kind that ultimately sunk Paul Martin’s government.  Still if the shuffle was intended to send the message that the government is “recalibrating” on public expenditure and economic growth, it did.

The defining appointment is the shift of Stockwell Day from International Trade to Treasury Board. Many in the press have rightfully pointed out its significance as the government’s seriousness about addressing its spending, but Day’s appointment actually says more than just that. 

First, just what does the Treasury Board actually do?  An apt analogy is that if the Ministry of Finance controls the water pumping stations, Treasury Board controls the taps.  A minister will have money in his or her budget, as approved by Parliament, but they cannot really spend it unless they have approval from the Treasury Board, the relevant Cabinet Committee, and ultimately the full Cabinet.  Treasury Board controls the submissions involving expenditures to Cabinet committees.  For the most part, the Treasury Board’s work has been technical in nature ensuring that spending proposals are properly sourced in the ministry’s budget envelope.  Treasury Board has not historically served as a policy maker but as a rule enforcer.

With Stockwell Day’s appointment, that may change to the extent that Day may become the second Finance Minister.  How so? First of all, Day serves as Harper’s go-to guy when a tough job needs doing. They understand each other and they trust each other.  Day served as Alberta’s Minister of Finance when tough decisions were made.  Yes, Flaherty was Ontario’s Minister of Finance but arguably Day in Edmonton was a lot tougher than Flaherty at Queen’s Park.  For such a senior and experienced minister to take a portfolio and not have a significant policy role seems unlikely.  To the extent that money equals policy influence–which it does–Treasury Board’s mandate, if fully exercised, can allow for  significant  influence .

What to expect? Day will swiftly set about to establish and enforce priorities on to what actually gets spent outside of mandated expenditures.  If a proposal is not funded, if a proposal cannot be tied to a clear economic purpose or if a proposal merely appears sloppily prepared (it happens more than you would think), Day will serve as the voice of the PMO in saying “Non.” His French by the way is excellent.

To that extent, Stockwell Day will take on an importance to line ministers greater than that of Flaherty himself.  The following ministries will be the most affected, Human Resources and Development Canada, Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Heritage, DIAND and perhaps most of all CIDA. 

After this recalibration, expect priorities to be set and enforced, if not always transparently.

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