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Shuffle reflects No. 1 priority: the economy

From Friday's Globe and Mail

Canada's Conservative minority government

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OTTAWA - Stephen Harper moved to tackle his new government's most glaring vulnerabilities Thursday with a cabinet that boasts more women, changes tone on the environment and focuses bench strength on Ontario's faltering economy.

The Prime Minister enlarged his cabinet to 38 members from 32, in part by increasing representation from Ontario, which now gets 13 ministers, up from nine. Moreover, the key ministries of Finance, Industry, and Transport and Infrastructure will be held by Ontarians.

“Obviously we have tried to move some of our strongest ministers into key economic portfolios,” Mr. Harper told reporters after the swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall on Thursday. “Obviously the economy, as I said in the election campaign, will be our No. 1 priority.”

Mr. Harper also moved three rookie female MPs into significant posts, the most high-profile one being the Health Ministry, which will be headed by Leona Aglukkaq of Nunavut. Ms. Aglukkaq, an Inuk, is a former health minister for the government of Nunavut.

Gail Shea of Prince Edward Island was named Minister of Fisheries and Lisa Raitt, elected in the riding of Halton, just outside Toronto, was given the post of Natural Resources, replacing Gary Lunn. Ms. Raitt is the former chief executive officer of the Toronto Port Authority.

Over all, the complement of female Tory ministers grows to 11, from seven, tying former prime minister Paul Martin's record for the number of women in a cabinet.

Ms. Raitt is one of five Ontario ministers whose portfolios touch on economic issues. Three heavyweight ministries – Finance, Industry and Transport – will be filled by Jim Flaherty, Tony Clement and John Baird, respectively. All were ministers in the government of Ontario premier Mike Harris.

“Infrastructure and transport are obviously very important to economic growth, they are very important to job creation,” Mr. Baird said of his new role. “We want to see more action and we are committed to moving forward aggressively with our new agenda.”

The Opposition Liberals attacked Mr. Harper's choices, saying ministers such as Mr. Flaherty shouldn't be kept in charge after the Tories inherited a $13-billion surplus when they came to office but are now at serious risk of running a deficit next year.

“It will be difficult for Mr. Harper's cabinet members to establish themselves as competent economic managers unless they correct the fiscal irresponsibility that brought our economy to the brink of deficit in the first place,” Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale said.

Another Ontario MP, Gary Goodyear, will get the junior ministry of Science and Technology.

Also yesterday, Mr. Harper moved to change the tone of his government's message on the environment by appointing one of his key ministers, Jim Prentice, to head the ministry. Mr. Prentice's steady, non-confrontational style is a stark contrast to the attitude of his predecessor, Mr. Baird.

Mr. Prentice said yesterday his greatest challenge will be balancing the need to protect the environment with the faltering economy. Mr. Prentice, who is from Calgary, will be dealing in particular with oil companies, which the government has ordered to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

“These are issues that are rendered more difficult by the economic slowdown rather than easier,” Mr. Prentice said.

The cabinet has 10 new ministers, five of them rookies. The rookies include former broadcaster Peter Kent as the junior minister for Foreign Affairs, where he will act as understudy to Lawrence Cannon, the new head of the department.

Mr. Cannon heads a list of five Quebeckers, the same as last time, on Mr. Harper's ministerial team. However, their senior ranks are down, with the loss of Michael Fortier, who had been the international trade minister. The new Quebecker in cabinet is Denis Lebel, the junior minister of Economic Development for Quebec.

The economy was not far from the mind of Mr. Cannon, who said the turmoil will occupy much of his time.

“I think Canada has an extraordinary role to play in this period of instability.”

The new Minister for International Trade is Stockwell Day, who moves from Public Safety. Ontario's Peter Van Loan takes over from Mr. Day, while British Columbia's Jay Hill takes on the House Leader role that Mr. Van Loan previously held.

In his news conference, Mr. Harper did not mince words over the challenges his government faces, saying the future appears to be more cloudy than it did even in the aftermath of the election.

“We put a high value on keeping the budget balanced, but the truth of the matter is we are less certain about the future today than we were even a few weeks ago,” he said.

Mr. Harper did not fire any cabinet ministers, but a few return with diminished roles. Those include Gary Lunn, who goes from Natural Resources to Minister of State for Sport, and Josée Verner, who loses her job at Heritage and takes over at Intergovernmental Affairs.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, who landed in hot water during the election campaign for joking about the listeriosis crisis, retained his job.

Those who were rewarded included Jason Kenney, who went from responsibility for Multiculturalism to the Citizenship and Immigration portfolio. Mr. Kenney was seen as having succeeded in attracting support from members of ethnic groups, who have traditionally backed Liberals.

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