Big bucks for bloated cabinet

Prime Minister Stephen Harper downplayed his cabinet shuffle this week as small change. Smaller would have been better.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper downplayed his cabinet shuffle this week as small change.

Smaller would have been better.

He created one new portfolio, added one brand new name, Julian Fantino, and shuffled two incumbents into new chairs.

The key changes were made for political advantage rather than operational efficiency, and continue the prime minister’s pattern of cabinet bloating.

The shuffle was driven by the departure of the highly respected Jim Prentice, who left the environmental portfolio in November to work for a big bank on Bay Street.

Former TV newsman Peter Kent inherits that job and is replaced in his old job of junior foreign affairs minister (Americas) by the excellent Calgary MP Diane Ablonczy, 61.

Kent, 67, will need his well-honed ability to speak articulately without actually saying anything substantial, because the most important element of Canada’s environmental policy consists of waiting to see what the United States does on climate change, then following suit.

With the American House of Representatives under the control of the foot-dragging Republicans, there’s precious little that President Barack Obama can do on that front in the next two years.

No doubt Kent will make many eloquent speeches on less-critical environmental issues, raising his profile and Conservative fortunes as one of the few government MPs from Toronto. That’s why he was promoted.

Fantino, the new minister for Seniors, represents a suburban Toronto riding, and that’s the turf Harper needs to win to form his first majority government in the coming election.

The election call could come soon, if the opposition parties get together to scuttle the new budget bill in February.

Right now, that does not look probable.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has done little to improve his standing among Canadians, despite a cross-Canada summer tour to meet grassroots voters.

The economy is the biggest issue, by far, to voters, and Harper is seen as the best man to manage it.

He’s an economist by training. Canada came out of the global recession in better shape than almost every other developed nation, and most forecasters are cautiously optimistic about Canadian prospects for 2011.

The Bank of Canada predicts 2.5 per cent growth this year.

Last year, the economy created more than 300,000 new jobs, including 25,000 in December, thus recovering all jobs lost since the start of the recession.

The trouble is with a growing Canadian population and workforce, our economy needs to create 15,000 to 20,000 jobs every month just to keep the unemployment rate flat at 7.6 per cent.

The economic numbers that few Tories are keen to trumpet surround the deficit. Last year, the federal deficit was $55.8 billion. That means Canada sank deeper into debt — more than $150 million a day or $6 million every hour.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has projected a $45.4-billion deficit for this year and does not anticipate a balanced federal budget until 2015-16.

He will have extra help to get his numbers right, with Harper’s appointment this week of Ted Menzies to the new post of junior minister for Finance.

Menzies, 58, was highly regarded in Ottawa as parliamentary secretary to the Finance minister.

His promotion to cabinet on Tuesday adds another Albertan to replace Prentice in Harper’s cabinet. Menzies gets a $75,000 raise to his $137,000-a-year MP’s salary, plus a car and driver.

His appointment raises Harper’s cabinet nose count to 38.

That’s another number the Tories are not keen to discuss.

In the United States, Obama manages to lead a nation 10 times our size with a 23-member cabinet.

When David Cameron became prime minister of a British coalition government last May, he created a 23-member cabinet.

When Harper was elected in 2006, his first cabinet had 26 ministers, down radically from that of his Liberal predecessor Paul Martin.

“My smaller cabinet and more streamlined cabinet structure are designed for work — not for show,” Harper said at the time.

Today it has swollen to 38 ministers, the same number as Martin had.

Adding Fantino, 68, who had been a professional politician for less than three weeks before being sworn in as a cabinet minister this week, and the creation of a new portfolio for Menzies looks like bloating.

In truth, it’s even worse than it looks when you consider how little scope for action Harper grants his ministers.

All the real power lies within Harper’s firm grip in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Joe McLaughlin is the retired former managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.