Greg Weston: Younger, socially wired, the new — maybe — Harper cabinet

Stephen Harper unveiled what might be called his new smartphone cabinet yesterday — younger, more female-friendly, socially wired. But, Greg Weston asks, will the PMO loosen its grip on the training wheels to let the new gang govern on their own?

But will the PMO loosen its grip on the government agenda?

The smartphone cabinet? Foreign Minister John Baird takes a photo of photographers while the new minister of labour, Kellie Leitch, and minister of state for seniors, Alice Wong, look on. (Chris Wattie / Reuters)

Beyond all the spin surrounding Stephen Harper's extreme cabinet makeover, it remains to be seen whether Canadians will actually get a different kind of Conservative government in the months to come. Or merely the same one with a facelift.

For seven years, the prime minister has maintained an iron grip on the government, his ministers routinely reduced to delivering policies and pronouncements scripted by his office.

Branding itself the "Harper government" was both deliberate and expensive.

Unless all that changes and the PM loosens his grip, Monday's shuffle of new faces and old hands may produce little more than some fresh faces in photo ops, and new titles for established ministers, all still taking orders from the PMO.

Harper didn't get past the media microphones at Rideau Hall before he was hit with the question: Did he have any plans to "hit the reset button" on himself?

His answer was at best non-committal.

"I think on balance, the government has been successful. That's why we've been re- elected twice with increased support," he told reporters.

"But obviously we're always looking at ways we can continue to evolve to address new challenges and improve our performance."

Fewer grumpy old men

In terms of pure political optics, Harper's cabinet shuffle didn't miss a lot of tricks.

The government often portrayed as the domain of grumpy old men — and some grumpy young ones, too — now wants to appear younger, more welcoming to women, and fully wired into social media.

Some of the old guard stay in place: From left, Treasury Board President Tony Clement, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, and Government House Leader Peter Van Loan. (Chris Wattie / Reuters)

Shuffle day began with video clips on YouTube featuring warm and fuzzy statements from Harper and two of his new female cabinet stars, Michelle Rempel and Shelly Glover.

Ordinarily, the list of ministers and their portfolios is a tightly guarded secret until the swearing-in ceremony begins. But not on Monday.

As each person involved in the shuffle arrived at Rideau Hall to be sworn in to cabinet, the PM's Twitter account announced which portfolio that minister would be getting.

After the ceremony, the PM spoke to the media, and then turned the microphones over to his two youngest-looking new ministers — Rempel and Chris Alexander — giving the cameras plenty of youthful footage for their reports.

Of course, most Canadians are more interested in what the government plans to do over the next 27 months before the next federal election, than in who's going to be making the daily announcements.

Harper did confirm Monday that the government will begin the fall session with a Throne Speech setting out a new agenda, but he offered no specifics.

Still, the cabinet shuffle offers some valuable insights into the issues Harper at least appears to consider important — and some he doesn't.

First and foremost, it is clear the government will remain focused on the economy. It is by far the Conservatives' perceived strong suit, and Harper was apparently not prepared to risk shuffling his best hand. 

Of the eight ministers who kept their old jobs, four are in the most important economic roles in government: Jim Flaherty (Finance); Tony Clement (Treasury Board); Joe Oliver (Natural Resources); Ed Fast (International Trade).

Similarly, among those he did shuffle, Harper also put two of his other top performers in economic jobs: James Moore at Industry, and Jason Kenney at a redesigned super-ministry called Employment and Social Development.

In addition to the quartet of economic ministers who didn't change seats at the cabinet table, the other four Harper left untouched are all in similarly crucial roles — foreign affairs, agriculture, aboriginal affairs and House leader — prompting some critics to question whether the shuffle was really as profound as the mere body count might suggest.

Action stickers

Harper has put action stickers on several portfolios by assigning strong female ministers to them.

Diane Finley, one of the most capable ministers at the table, takes over Public Works and the endless headaches of trying to bring sanity to the process of buying military aircraft, ships and other equipment.

At the same time, Harper has given Lisa Raitt a big promotion to Transport, a ministry potentially fraught with immediate controversy given the rail safety regulation and other issues surrounding the train disaster at Lac-Megantic, Que.

Equally interesting is what's evidently not so much on Harper's radar.

For instance, the PM has given the important Public Safety portfolio to Quebec MP and former veterans affairs minister Steven Blaney, a move insiders say is a good indication the Prime Minister's Office wants control over the department responsible for the RCMP, CSIS and Emergency Measures.

Ditto for the environment portfolio — giving it to Leona Aglukkaq, not one of the cabinet's top performers, suggests the file will again be handled largely by PMO, much as it was under its previous occupant, Peter Kent.

Harper also seems to be sending a clear – and decidedly negative — signal to the growing number of unhappy Conservative backbenchers who complain they have no meaningful role in government, and have been pressing for real and sweeping parliamentary reform.

The PM has appointed his resident parliamentary attack dog and all-purpose mud-tosser, Pierre Poilievre, to be the junior minister responsible for democratic reform.

If that weren't enough to incite a backbench revolt, Harper has also left the House leadership in the hands of Peter Van Loan, one of the most abrasive and divisive voices remaining on the Conservative benches.

Monday's cabinet shuffle is only the first step in the Conservatives' attempt to rejuvenate a government increasingly seen as tired and cranky, and to show Canadian voters it is turning the page on the Senate-PMO scandal.

If Harper succeeds in moving his government forward, he will likely lead his party to the polls in 2015.

If the plan fails, the last cabinet position Harper shuffles before the next election may well be his own.