In the life of a government caucus, few events are as disruptive as a cabinet shuffle.
The exercise inevitably results in more losers than winners. Over time, repeat losers tend to become less and less accommodating of the party line.
That is often even more true of anyone who is actually dropped from the cabinet.
For that reason, a prime minister will usually turn a deaf ear to a lot of squeaks before he gets down to replacing or repositioning any of his cabinet wheels.
But there comes a time when a poor ministerial alignment threatens to derail a government’s message. In the case of Stephen Harper’s cabinet, that time has come.
There are five problem cases that no ambitious government with three years left in its mandate can afford to ignore.
International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda: No sooner was this minister reappointed in the face of a barrage of questions about her judgment than she set out to prove her critics right.
Her enduring presence has become a powerful signal to the government’s backbenchers that embarrassment does rhyme with advancement.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay: His credibility took a major hit over the F-35 saga.
There is evidence that the minister’s relationship with the military brass is in tatters. With military procurement under the tutelage of Public Works, so is his moral authority.
The opposition has been calling for the firing of both of the above ministers.
But with an eye to the longer term, addressing the miscasting of another ministerial trio may actually be more important.
In its budget, the government elevated the advancement of Canada as an energy superpower to a core mission.
It is building its economic strategy squarely on a natural resources foundation.
The electorate still needs to be sold on this vision, which has put Ottawa on a collision course with the First Nations and the global environment movement.
To handle so delicate and so central a file, Harper needs superior performers in three crucial portfolios: the environment, aboriginal affairs and energy.
His current team falls well short of that mark.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan: He is Harper’s weakest aboriginal affairs minister to date. He was never a match for Jim Prentice or Chuck Strahl in terms of cabinet influence.
His handling of the Attawapiskat crisis suggests he is in way over his head in a role that will only get more challenging.
Environment Minister Peter Kent: He has emerged as an undertaker of his own department and a vocal critic of his ministry’s environmental constituency.
It is hard to think of a minister who so routinely goes out of his way to belittle his opposition the way Kent does.
In the circumstances, it is for the best that Kent, like Duncan, is not fluent in French. It tends to restrict the unnecessary communications damage to one language.
Energy Minister Joe Oliver: The rookie is an unpolished communicator who approaches the building of a public consensus in the same way he would run a board meeting.
His witch-hunt approach to the environmental movement has put an overly ideological spin on the government’s agenda.
If Harper wants to bring Canadians around to his notion that marketing more of our nonrenewable natural resources is the way a prosperous collective future, he needs a trio on the energy/environment/aboriginal front that is more into bridge building than bridge burning.
Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer for the Toronto Star.