Harper shuffles cabinet: promotes Kent to environment

Stephen Harper has put the final touches on what could be his pre-election cabinet, elevating former TV newsman Peter Kent to environment minister and bringing in star newbie Julian Fantino.

Conservative MPs Peter Kent

Conservative MPs Peter Kent

OTTAWA — Stephen Harper has put the final touches on what could be his pre-election cabinet, elevating former TV newsman Peter Kent to environment minister and bringing in star newbie Julian Fantino.

The four-post mini-shuffle fills a hole in Harper’s front bench and gives higher profiles to Kent and Fantino — both Toronto-area MPs — in time for a possible election this year.

Fantino, ex-Ontario Provincial Police chief, narrowly won a November byelection in the former Liberal stronghold of Vaughan, north of Toronto. His quick promotion as minister of state (seniors) is an indication the Conservatives hope the breakthrough can be turned into a second beachhead for the party. Kent won his nearby seat of Thornhill in 2008.

There were only two other cabinet changes, both involving junior posts:

— Alberta MP Ted Menzies got the newly created portfolio minister of state (finance). He had been parliamentary secretary to the finance minister.

— Alberta MP Diane Ablonczy is minister of state of foreign affairs (Americas and consular affairs). She had been minister of state (seniors).

Harper described the changes as “fine tuning” and said he intends to “stay the course.”

“This is a time for stability, not uncertainty,” he said.

He reiterated that he doesn’t want an election but must be prepared. The shuffle puts the Conservative team in place should the opposition parties defeat the budget in March and bring down the government.

As well, insiders say the Tories are gearing up for a vote should public opinion polls show a majority is in sight.

Harper pounded away at what is sure to be a key campaign theme.

“Canadians have just come through a year during which the rewards of prudent financial stewardship, and of appropriate, well-timed stimulus measures have yielded dividends in jobs and growth,” he said.

“It is a good note upon which to start a new year. However, the global recovery is fragile. And there are still far too many jobless Canadians for whom the recovery has yet to become a full reality.

“That is why the economy remains the No. 1 priority for Canadians, and must remain the No. 1 priority for our government.”

The shuffle has been necessary since Jim Prentice left the environment portfolio in November for the greener pastures of Bay Street, after being left in what many considered a no-win situation.

Kent’s elevation to environment fulfills a need for a solid spokesman in a portfolio where the minister is constantly under attack for the government’s perceived lack of action on the file.

Canada has said it will follow the U.S. lead on climate change, a position that leaves the government vulnerable to criticism it lacks vision on what many regard as one of the world’s most pressing long-term problems.

Fantino can use his higher profile in what has proven challenging territory for Conservatives — the Toronto area. Insiders say the former tough cop is also ideal to promote the government’s law-and-order agenda to seniors, a constituency that is especially sensitive to the crime issue.