Cabinet shuffle targets cherished 905

Underlying the prime minister's latest tinkering with the ministerial limo pool is part of a political roadmap to a majority Conservative government via suburban Toronto and seniors' homes everywhere.
Conservative MPs, left to right, Peter Kent, Diane Ablonczy, Ted Menzies and Julian Fantino wait to be sworn in during a cabinet shuffle at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Tuesday. ((Sean Kilpatrick/ Canadian Press)

Underlying the prime minister's latest tinkering with the ministerial limo pool is part of a political roadmap to a majority Conservative government via suburban Toronto and seniors' homes everywhere.

Two of the four Conservative MPs involved in Tuesday's cabinet mini-shuffle represent ridings in the so-called "905" belt around Toronto, an area long considered key to Stephen Harper winning his long-cherished majority.

It is also likely no coincidence that two of the four ministers will be involved in issues of particular interest to seniors, a demographic that makes up a sizable part of the Conservative core vote.

Julian Fantino is now at the centre of both – the recently elected MP for the suburban Toronto riding of Vaughan has been appointed the federal minister directly responsible for seniors.

The seniors portfolio is about as junior as cabinet jobs come, and the former Toronto police chief might be excused for wondering if he has been assigned to parking patrol.

But Conservative strategists say the relatively modest demands of Fantino's new cabinet position are perfectly suited to the far more onerous plans Harper has for his new political superstar.

Over the coming months, the former top Ontario cop will be assigned to almost full-time rubber-chicken duty, touring the country as both the minister for seniors and the convincing face of the Conservatives' law-and-order agenda.

Menzies: point man on pensions

Ted Menzies also has seniors on his mind.

The highly capable and affable Alberta MP has been given the freshly minted portfolio of minister of state for finance, a ministerial version of the job he was already doing as a parliamentary secretary to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives at Rideau Hall in Ottawa last January for the swearing-in of his cabinet. ((Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press))

Like many talented Alberta MPs in the Conservative caucus, Menzies would have had a limo long ago were he from another province less heavily represented at the cabinet table.

The recent departure of Alberta MP Jim Prentice for the greener fields of banking finally left a seat open for Menzies and, indeed, created the need for Tuesday's shuffle.

Officially, Menzies becomes the finance minister's all-purpose stand-in when Flaherty is otherwise engaged at home or abroad.

But for the past two years, Menzies has also been the government’s unofficial point man on pension reform, a role he is now expected to pursue with his new-found power and influence at the cabinet table.

It is an issue that hits a nerve with seniors.

A Nanos Research poll in the past year found a large majority of Canadians of all ages worried that both public and private pension plans will have to reduce payments in the future.

Fully a quarter of those over the age of 60 said strengthening pensions should be the country's first economic priority, ahead of debt reduction or job creation.

Kent faces challenging task

Menzies' job of preaching pension reform will pale in comparison with the task ahead for Canada’s newest environment minister, Peter Kent, elevated from junior minister of state for foreign affairs.

Like his new cabinet mate Fantino, Kent represents one of the Conservatives' prized "905" ridings north of Toronto that Harper is determined to hold, if not multiply.

The former broadcaster comes by his promotion deservedly, his foreign affairs experience in diplomacy and Canada-U.S. relations certain to serve him well in the environmental portfolio.

That said, it is not at all clear that Kent's having to explain the Conservative government’s environmental policies — or lack thereof — will help or hinder his own political fortunes.

Finally, like the elevation of Menzies, the promotion of Diane Ablonczy from the seniors portfolio to minister of state for foreign affairs was long overdue.

Talented, intelligent and experienced, Ablonczy has long been left to languish in junior cabinet jobs for reasons only the prime minister seems to know.

Of course, while cabinet shuffles always generate lots of buzz in political and media circles, they rarely change a government's course, and this one is no exception.

Truth is, Harper has shuffled a few chairs on the deck, but control of the ship remains firmly and solely in the hands of the only minister with a bullet-proof limo.