With my post yesterday on Rona Ambrose’s prorogation mountain climbing I did touch somewhat on this week’s shuffle of Stephen Harper’s cabinet, but I did want to comment a bit more broadly on the topic before moving on.
I don’t think it was really much of a shuffle of note. Most of the major jobs stayed the same. Sure, Lisa Raitt was down (but not out, what do you need to do to get booted by Harper?) and Rona Ambrose was up. Whatev.
Much attention seems to be focusing around Stockwell Day’s move to Treasury Board, which is being taken as a sign that the government is about to get serious about cutting spending. I need to take a contrarian view on that one for three reasons.
First, this government was the highest spending government in Canadian history BEFORE the downturn and stimulus, so if they did suddenly decide to be fiscally prudent it would be quite a turnaround for them.
Second, even if they did want to go on spending cut bonanza, what is it about Stock Day that makes him the ideal poster child for probity? I don’t recall his term as Alberta Treasurer being marked by spending restraint. All I do recall is the government having to pay for him to defend against lawsuits and pay for settlements.
Third, there seems to be some fundamental confusion about the role of the president of the Treasury Board. To quote the Winnipeg Sun:
The president of the Treasury Board’s job is to monitor that spending after a fiscal blueprint has been approved by Parliament. If the budget itself — expected in March — does not contain the kind of frugality required to start reversing this orgy of government spending we’ve seen in recent years, Harper could appoint Ebenezer Scrooge to head the Treasury Board and it wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans.
If the government wanted to launch a rationalization and efficiency kick, asking departments to give back existing budget, then TB head would be the guy to lead it. I recall Reg Alcock leading a program review under Paul Martin. I wouldn’t count on big savings though. Every government comes into power promising to cut waste, and always finds there’s far less waste then they thought. Or are willing to cut.
No, if you want to cut spending it’s not done by Treasury Board. It’s done by Finance during the budget process. And last I checked, that department is still headed by the highest spending finance minister in Canadian history, the same guy who left Ontarioins with a massive hidden deficit. With Jim Flaherty still in his job, I’ll believe this new probity when I see it.
No cabinet personalities
The overarching thought I had when considering this shuffle is how bland and interchangeable most of the Harper ministers are. And it really speaks to the differences in governing philosophy and the role of government between Liberals and Conservatives.
It seemed to me that the Liberals always many activist ministers, who pushed and fought for programs and initiatives that they believed in and were important to them. John Manley and later Brian Tobin on wireless broadband. Lloyd Axworthy on land mines. David Anderson on a range of environmental files. And many others. They had things they wanted to get done, and they lobbied hard to do so. They had personalities.
In contrast, the Conservative ministers seem more simple managers. They get their marching orders from the PMO and they work quietly and diligently on the file, managing the day to day. But I get no sense of a vision, of any minister being truly engaged in their portfolios, bringing drive and a personal interest to move files forward. Perhaps the one exception is Jason Kenney who, while I often disagree with him on policy, is very much personally engaged in his portfolio and seems to have a vision driving him. The rest of them, I sense you could have everyone trade with the minister to their left at the cabinet table and it wouldn’t change a thing.
Of course, both Conservatives and Liberals would say that their approach is the right one. And it wouldn’t (just) be partisanship. Liberals believe in activist government as a force for good in society, Conservatives want government to manage its narrow responsibilities well and otherwise stay out of the way.
It’s an interesting contrast, though. In the end, there’s only one minister that matters, and that’s the one in the Langevin Block. The other pieces are entirely interchangeable. Recommend this Post on Progressive Bloggers