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February 7, 2006
Harper Includes Surprises In His Cabinet

Stephen Harper took office yesterday as the 22nd Prime Minister of Canada and formed his new Cabinet -- a move which resulted in immediate controversy. In a scene reminiscent of Paul Martin's seduction of Belinda Stronach, Harper included a newly-elected Liberal MP as his international trade minister:

He lured a Vancouver Liberal star, David Emerson, to become his international trade minister and made an unelected Montreal businessman, Michael Fortier, a Senator and public works minister in one fell swoop.

Emerson - re-elected as a Liberal just two weeks ago - drew gasps as he arrived at Rideau Hall to be sworn in. He took the oath while still in possession of a Liberal party card.

Fortier, a former Progressive Conservative party president, didn't run for Parliament but was the party's election campaign co-chair. He has agreed to run in the next election and will hold a temporary Senate seat until then.

Harper later told the press that he wanted to ensure that the urban areas had representation in his cabinet. The Tories came to power mostly on the basis of rural and suburban ridings, where the Conservative influence grew after the string of Liberal scandals. The Grits held onto the urban centers of Canada, where they have long held sway. That resulted in an awkward imbalance where the Tories would have had no urban representation in their leadership -- leading them to negotiate for Emerson's defection from the Liberals.

Harper made a smart move in offering the position to Emerson. The Tory leader obviously has his eyes on the next election, and he needs to build party support in the cities if the Conservatives hope to form a majority government at some point. Emerson's switch also gives wavering Liberals some reason to rethink their affiliation. And voters in Montreal and Vancouver, who may have thought themselves written off after backing the losing horse, will find themselves still engaged in the governing process. Finally, including a former Liberal as the international trade minister sends a message that change will be incremental, at least at first, which should alleviate some nervousness about Harper's rule among Canadian voters.

The press, meanwhile, did their best to spin this as a betrayal of principle. However, after Belinda Stronach's switch to the Liberals, the Tories only complained that the portfolio she was given was nothing but a sinecure, a payoff for keeping the Martin government afloat. The Tories do not face a no-confidence vote, and cannot be accused of paying Emerson off for his switch. Besides, Emerson doesn't share a bed with a Liberal leader the way Stronach did with Tory deputy leader Peter MacKay, making hers a dual betrayal.

Harper showed some nerve yesterday in his selections. He may be more of a political visionary than anyone expected.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at February 7, 2006 5:42 AM

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