Premier Shawn Graham's cabinet shuffle is an attempt at a political triple play: he's trying to fix three problems with a single move.
First, Graham needed plug to the holes in his cabinet from all the messiness earlier this year. He lost Stuart Jamieson from Tourism over the NB Power negotiations and he lost Bernard LeBlanc at Justice over a sloppy privacy breach. Other ministers took on extra workloads; today's move restores more manageable workloads to everyone. (In addition, it sends a message of what Graham's standard is for redemption: if you make a mistake, take responsibility and resign quickly, as LeBlanc did, and if the mistake wasn't a huge one, you may be back soon.)
Second, Graham wanted to send a message in the aftermath of the failed negotiations with Quebec. With three-and-a-half months to go before the writ, he names a minister of public engagement. It's obviously a reactive move, given such a post was never promised back in 2006, nor created until now. Premiers have shown a pattern of creating quirky cabinet posts to signal a policy emphasis (remember Frank McKenna's "minister for the information highway") or to fix a problem. But designating a minister responsible for a concept doesn't mean the concept will become reality. This move, signaled last week, has already come in for a fair amount of ridicule. The real challenge for Graham is whether it represents a real shift in thinking, and whether the remaining months of his mandate give him enough time to persuade voters.
(Some political watchers in the Twitterverse suggested last week the post should go to Jamieson, who quit cabinet because he wanted a referendum on NB Power, then demanded he be named a minister again in return for him rejoining the Liberal caucus. But such a move would have sent a signal of weakness, with Graham appearing to cave in. It was never in the cards. As for the minister, Bernard LeBlanc, he hasn't had the most engaging style around the legislature, at least with reporters, so it remains to be seen if he's the ideal point man on this.)
Third, Graham has been dogged by criticism that there's an appalling lack of women around his cabinet table. Health Minister Mary Schryer has been the only one; naming Cheryl Lavoie allows Graham to double the number, but it's still paltry at two. The real problem here isn't putting more female MLAs in cabinet -- he only has four -- it's not having enough women to choose from in the first place. Had Graham and his party encouraged more women to become candidates in 2006, he'd have had more choices during his mandate. The real test will be in September, when we can compare how many Liberal women are on the ballot compared to four years earlier.
So three problems and three fixes, as much as they can be fixed this late in his mandate. One suspects that plugging cabinet holes and boosting the role of women in cabinet are unlikely to be game-changers, so the success of this play may come down to the creation of the engagement minister. And the real challenge there is to mollify a cranky electorate. At the same time, the Liberals are ramping up their attacks on the PCs, seizing on one candidate's preference for cutting government back to "essential services." Which suggests the government has one eye on engaging the public and the other on engaging the enemy.
- Jacques Poitras