Canadian PM shuffles Cabinet

Updated: 2007-08-15 11:58

TORONTO -- Canada's prime minister replaced his embattled defense minister Tuesday in a major Cabinet overhaul apparently aimed at re-energizing his minority government.

Peter MacKay (L) sits beside Gordon O'Connor during a cabinet swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa August 14, 2007. MacKay will replace O'Connor as defence minister. [Reuters]

Defense chief Gordon O'Connor, the focus of opposition protest over his handling of Canada's role in Afghanistan, was replaced by Peter MacKay, who had been foreign minister.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper named Maxime Bernier, who had been industry miniter, to MacKay's old position.

Harper's Conservatives unseated the Liberals in 2006 after nearly 13 years in power, but as a minority government the party has a tenuous hold on power with Harper relying on opposition lawmakers to pass legislation. His government's approval ratings have remained stagnant since the January 2006 election.

In all, Harper made changes to a 10 ministerial positions in the shakeup. But the replacement of O'Connor, who will now lead the revenue ministry, was a major element. Opposition parties charged that O'Connor made conflicting statements about what the military knew about the torture of Taliban detainees after they were handed over to Afghan authorities.

Opposition Liberal leader Stephane Dion called on Harper to tell NATO that Canada will not extend its combat mission in Afghanistan past its scheduled February 2009 end.

Harper rarely consults with the opposition or even his own Cabinet. His ministers rarely speak out without getting approval from his office. Many political scientists do not expect that to change with a shuffle.

"The Cabinet doesn't matter very much when there's a one-man government run by a control freak," said Stephen Clarkson, a political scientist at the University of Toronto. "It doesn't matter who is a minister of a department because the prime minister decides things."

In order to win a majority in parliament, Harper must reform his image, said Grace Skogstad, also a political scientist at Toronto. Harper is not expected to call elections soon because he is unlikely to win a majority. At the same time, opposition parties have not gained enough in the polls to merit a no confidence vote that would trigger an election.

"He can certainly reshuffle the deck, but he's got to start working on his own image and share power a little more, and make it seem to Canadian voters that there is some kind of cabinet there," Skogstad said.

"You certainly don't get the impression that there's a competent team there. It's very hard to think of a bright shining light in that cabinet," she said.

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