Monday, January 18, 2010

Maybe the shuffler should be shuffled

Apparently the cabinet shuffle is on this week. Despite the obvious need to focus the government's attention on the Haiti challenge, the political priorities of the Prime Minister will proceed apace. Crisis? What crisis? Let's go ahead and shuffle the deck, say, Tuesday. No speculation on personnel here, we can wait until tomorrow. The point of this post is to highlight, for lack of a better word, the irony of what's going on here.

After all, how much difference is cabinet tinkering going to make with this controlling PMO in place in any event? What's more interesting is the political backdrop in which it's taking place. This shuffle comes with that prorogation bomb of a decision having just been made by the Prime Minister. Now that's a shuffle worthy incident. His ministers are pikers compared to the damage the PM is capable of causing.

There are also a few issues on the national scene that have been brewing, beyond the prorogation issue, in the past number of weeks, highlighting a lack of leadership from the federal government. There are the environmental tensions building, principally in the dynamic we've seen among Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. Last week there was quite the interesting development, egged on by the yellow beast:
One day after shuffling his cabinet, Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach is signalling a confrontation with the federal government over equalization.

Stelmach has put his new finance minister, Ted Morton, in charge of negotiating with Ottawa to update the equalization deal because he says it doesn't work for Albertans.

Alberta pays a lot more money in federal taxes than it receives, yet the province is criticized for its vast energy wealth, which helps many other Canadians, said the premier on Thursday.

"Especially after the discussion at Copenhagen, where much of the criticism was placed on this province, and yet our contribution - this last economic downturn, the worst year since the 1930s - was well over $21 billion and that cannot continue and we have to have that discussion in Canada," Stelmach said to reporters in Calgary.

Morton, considered a fiscal hawk, said equalization has outlived its original purpose of helping all provinces provide roughly the same level of services to citizens.
Way to go Ontario. Way to go, Quebec. What is it with politicians? Do they lock their brains in escape-proof boxes the day they get sworn in? (emphasis added)
Isn't that all very lovely, who needs equalization anyway? The main point here is that all is quiet on the federal front. Hello? Anyone home in the federal government or are they just content to let this little east-west schism fester for the foreseeable future? What will Mr. Harper say to the home base? Is this kind of positioning on equalization acceptable?

There's more of the Harper laissez faire attitude toward the provinces that could become problematic on display elsewhere too. Look at the other end of the country, there are four provinces jockeying over this proposed sale of NB Power to Hydro-Quebec that's supposed to be wrapped up by the end of March. There's opposition in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland to the deal, they are concerned about future access to the U.S. market that might be blocked. New Brunswickers are opposed to it as well, undermining Shawn Graham's support. Graham seems to be looking to renegotiate it down or something.

So what's the federal response been? Pretty much MIA. A junior minister mused about it at first, most helpfully wondering whether the federal government even had any role to play. Then the Defence Minister, Nova Scotian Peter MacKay, surprisingly questioned the deal in a roundabout way, but who really knows what legitimacy that had, if any. Around the time of MacKay's comments, we finally had news of Harper's position:
Graham said Friday that he has been assured by Prime Minister Stephen Harper that Ottawa was staying out of the issue.
"In my discussions with him, Prime Minister Harper was very clear that the energy sector is the responsibility of the provincial government," Graham said. "When the final deal is brought forward you are going to see opportunities for all of the Atlantic provinces to benefit."
Huh. So the Prime Minister doesn't seem to think it's important if Hydro-Quebec buys NB Power, to the irritation of two other provinces and also the prospect of inter-provincial and international trade concerns. Again, we must ask, hello? Anyone home in the federal government? To at least speak to the issue with some intelligence? Or are they again just content to let the provinces fight it out among themselves on a monumental issue that will have long term consequences for the Maritimes?

All this is to say, the PM may be going ahead with this shuffle, likely all part of the prorogation-break plan to "refresh" the cabinet and clean up problems before the Olympics and a possible election. But the New Year's eve prorogation, among other issues such as those above, has shown that one of the biggest liabilities in the Harper cabinet can be the guy sitting at the head of the table.