One test of the significance of the appointment of a new federal Cabinet is the amount of time in which the personnel choices and portfolio alterations remain newsworthy.   By that measure, the announcement of a new Conservative Cabinet really only lasted one news cycle. The media attention during the build up lasted longer than the interest shown after the fact. 

In large part, the Cabinet did not really change all that much and the changes that did take place were largely predictable once the election results were known.   For example, the sole Conservative MP from Newfoundland, a credible First Nations leader, was a pretty much a given to make the Cabinet cut.  To not make a bad situation worse, Quebec was certainly going to receive additional Cabinet seats as was British Columbia.  Ontario had to be rewarded in much the same way it used to be under Liberal governments.  What does the lack of surprises tell Canadians about Prime Minister Harper’s current assessment of the situation and his intentions moving forward?

A first observation is that the PM probably correctly assessed that the current composition of House of Commons still remains only a minority Conservative government, despite a clear seat majority.  The dramatic rise of the NDP at the disproportionate expense of the Liberal Party represents more of a sudden hail storm rather than a more profound result of “climate change. “  Minority governments one would guess face a risk in any major Cabinet upheaval of creating too many questions as to new faces, new agendas and new potential leaders.  In other words, the Cabinet announced was largely the one that the PM would have announced if he had only won a minority.

The benefit of caution and minor tinkering is the ability to send the message of stability, “business as usual.” For many Canadians that approach provides a level of comfort.  They can rest assured that not much will change for good or for ill.  Given the history of the unintended consequences of government ambitions for “change,” a small “c” conservative approach will likely keep the Harper Cabinet from becoming much of a topic of political let alone public discussion.

Yet the “steady as she goes” approach does have risks. It may potentially be interpreted as complacency and a lack of new ideas to face new challenges.  With the exception of Maxime Bernier in the small business portfolio, it is hard to think of a new Cabinet minister bringing any new ideas to the table, or at least any new ideas with any lasting impact.

John Baird as Foreign Minister will do what he has done well in previous portfolios – slap down the opposition attacks and keep repeating the mantra of the government’s basic competence. 

Ed Fast, the new Minister of International Trade, will almost certainly not address the fundamental weaknesses in Canada’s trade agenda, agricultural, communications, procurement and transport protectionism,  that has left officials to over-negotiate bilateral trade deals of questionable significance at least when compared to the stalled Doha Round, the talks with the European Union and the newly emerging Pacific Trade Talks.   Whatever vision the Prime Minister has for the next four years remains in his head and not expressed by any endorsement of potentially transformational cabinet ministers.

The reason for such an approach lies with the priority given to returning the government to a balanced budget.  For Stephen Harper a balanced budget must be achieved by the time of the next election or he will have failed his own criteria.  If he balances the budget, he can rightly claim to have brought Canada out of the worst recession of recent memory and left the country stronger.  If he fails to balance the budget, Canadians will have a right to ask, “Just what have you achieved over the last almost ten years?” What is at stake is not just the Conservatives’ fate in the next election but also Stephen Harper’s legacy.

It is no coincidence then that the Prime Minister has turned to two Harris Ontario stalwarts, the Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, and the Treasury Board Minister, Tony Clement.  They may not be terribly exciting political leaders but they have proven over their respective careers to deliver what their leader wants and to make sure he gets the credit.  Money is policy and right now Flaherty and Clement are the two most significant policy leaders in Ottawa other than of course of Stephen Harper.

What may surprise some in the years ahead is that Harper will leave much of the financial detail to Flaherty and Clement while he himself concentrates more on international affairs using Baird as his interlocutor.  Harper knows that whatever international capital Canada has gained in Afghanistan, Libya and the G-8 Maternal Health Initiative will simply dissipate without forceful interventions as once more the United States of America under the activist leadership of President Barrack Obama looks to likely once more re-order fundamental global relationships in the Middle East, Asia and Europe – even as the US economy struggles to improve.

Harper needs a balanced budget and a clear presence of Canada on the world stage in order to ensure the Conservatives win a majority in the next election based on a fundamental shift in voter alignment.  He needs both to prove his leadership mattered to the future of Canada.  Ultimately he knows history remembers Prime Ministers and only rarely Cabinet ministers.  And history sometimes is only one news cycle.

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