OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave his cabinet a gentle shake Friday, while insisting he doesn’t want to agitate a fall election.
But he stirred up some controversy with his choice of John Baird as government House leader — the man responsible for negotiating with the opposition parties in a fragile minority Parliament.
Baird is an outspoken and colourful politician, known for his combative nature, acerbic tongue and mocking tirades against the opposition in Parliament. That had critics questioning why Harper would appoint an unabashed partisan to such a sensitive role.
Harper dismissed those concerns, saying Baird has proven himself as a capable and effective leader in his role as transport minister, where he was responsible for billions of dollars in stimulus spending on infrastructure.
The cabinet shuffle was mainly housekeeping, involving just three ministers, with no major changes to senior leadership.
Baird replaces Jay Hill who announced last month that he won’t be seeking re-election after nearly two decades as MP for Prince George—Peace River, B.C.
Vancouver Island MP John Duncan, who had been serving as parliamentary secretary for Indian affairs, was promoted to cabinet as minister of Indian affairs and northern development. He takes over from Chuck Strahl, who moves to the transport portfolio, replacing Baird.
The shuffle comes on the heels of a sharp drop in the polls for the Conservatives, who have fallen below 30 per cent support and into a statistical tie with the Liberals.
Harper dismissed the poll numbers, but made it clear that he’s not looking for an election.
“One thing has become abundantly clear,” he said after the new ministers were sworn in at Rideau Hall. “Our economic action plan needs time to run its course; Canada cannot afford to interrupt this greenshoot of a recovery with an unnecessary election.”
Harper, speaking just hours after the release of new statistics showing that Canada lost 139,000 full-time jobs last month, said the economy remains the No. 1 priority at time of “global uncertainty.”
To bolster that, he leaves on cross country tour next week to push his economic plan.
Given the tradition of regional representation in cabinet, Harper was widely expected to appoint another British Columbian to replace the loss of Hill. Duncan is a long-time backbencher who was first elected to Parliament in 1993 under the Reform party banner.
Strahl, who has been battling asbestos-related lung cancer for years, is a popular politician who will be in charge of winding up the government’s infrastructure stimulus spending.
The last cabinet shuffle took place in January when 10 Conservative members took on new portfolios.