Chris Hall: Hitting the reset button on a tired government

The prime minister looks to be prepping a cabinet shuffle for the end of June in the hope of bringing some fresh blood and ideas to the fore, Chris Hall reports. This is midway through the four-year term and the Harper government has pretty much run through its to-do list.
Ottawa is bracing for a cabinet shuffle next month. Prime Minister Stephen Harper needs more than the current spate of Economic Action Plan ads to keep his government focused. (Canadian Press)

Two years into their first majority mandate, it's clear the Conservatives not only need to push the reset button, but that Prime Minister Stephen Harper intends to do so around the time spring slides into summer.

Political staffers are being told to remain in Ottawa for the final two weeks of June when Harper is expected to shuffle his cabinet, moving out a number of old-guard ministers in favour of younger MPs who are felt to have shown their worth as parliamentary secretaries and committee chairs.

This much-anticipated shuffle, to bring in new faces and inject new energy into the government, will be followed up in Calgary at the end of June, by the Conservatives' first policy convention since the 2011 election.

Party strategists see this one-two combination as a way of trying to set a positive news agenda before the country turns its attention to summer holidays.

That's because the most positive coverage the government is getting these days is from its own multimillion-dollar ad campaign to promote Canada's Economic Action Plan — otherwise known as the budget.

If you haven't seen the ads, you're not watching the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Liberals certainly are. New leader Justin Trudeau suggested the money spent on advertising could be put to better use underwriting jobs for young Canadians.

"Will the prime minister do young people and hockey fans a favour and pull these action plan ads so we can invest in more jobs for young people,'' he asked this week in question period.

Harper tried to brush aside the question.

"Obviously, it's important to make sure Canadians understand the measures that have been adopted by this Parliament that will benefit them,'' he said to hoots from the opposition benches.

"This country, Canada, has one of the best job-creation records in the developed world coming out of the recession. Canadians need to know about that.''

Harper went on to mention the Canada Jobs Strategy as but one example of how the budget is benefiting Canadians.

The irony in all this, as the prime minister inadvertently acknowledged, is that taxpayers are paying for an advertising campaign intended to tell them just how much the government is doing for them.

They might have expected that sort of thing to be self-evident.

The darts are flying

Canada has, in fact, emerged from the global recession in better shape than many of its industrial partners. No major banks failed. Jobs are being created. The deficit is shrinking, if more slowly than predicted.

Even some Conservative MPs have reportedly cringed at putting such a partisan flyer in with their taxpayer-financed mailouts. (Canadian Press)

But those things aren't the stuff of daily headlines. The news is being generated in other places, including from the opposition benches.

New Democrats are spending much of their time on the recent auditor general's report, using the findings to attack the government's record of financial management.

Among their darts: $29 billion in uncollected taxes; and $3.1 billion in anti-terror spending the government failed to track properly.

The list doesn't end there.

Documents tabled in the Commons this week to a Liberal MP's question showed the government has not only spent $23 million monitoring media coverage in the past two years, but some of it was being used to monitor what Conservative MPs were saying.

A growing number of Conservatives are now also refusing to use a program paid for by taxpayers to send out flyers prepared by the party to voters in their ridings that suggest Justin Trudeau is too green for the job of prime minister.

Meanwhile, opposition to the oilsands, the key to Canada's economic recovery, remains stubbornly resistant to this government's promotional efforts.

What's next?

None of these attacks on the government may ultimately stick, though recent polls suggest support for the Conservatives is softening.

The real problem is that the government has very little left of its own agenda to counter the sense of drift.

Its crime agenda is largely done. Changes to employment insurance, streamlining the environmental review of resource projects, immigration reform, creating pooled retirement plans are all off the to-do list.

What's left is an assortment of odds and ends.

These include passing a bill to implement parts of the March budget; completing negotiations on a free trade deal with the European Union before the summer; and promoting a raft of law and order bills sponsored by Conservative backbenchers that the government, for want of anything of its own to do, has decided to endorse.

So, two years into this majority mandate, and the push is on to refocus the government from what has already been done to what needs to be done. And maybe resetting the political agenda in the process.