OTTAWA - David Emerson was promoted Wednesday to the prestigious Foreign Affairs portfolio and may now be in line for another prime ministerial favour: a safe new riding in which to run in the next election.

Tory insiders say Emerson - who defected from the Liberals within days of the 2006 election and was vaulted straight into Stephen Harper's cabinet - has become one of the prime minister's most valued and respected ministers.

And they say Harper is determined to keep Emerson in government, instructing Tory officials to find a safe British Columbia riding for the former top B.C. bureaucrat and business leader to run in during the next election.

Emerson currently represents Vancouver Kingsway, where he was twice elected as a Liberal. However, his stunning defection to the Tories sparked an angry backlash in the riding, the lingering effects of which would likely doom any attempt to seek a third term.

Indeed, Emerson has signalled privately that he'll quit politics rather than face humiliating defeat. Hence, Conservatives are searching for another riding where Emerson would be more welcome.

Insiders say Tory officials are now exploring the possibility of a riding in B.C.'s Conservative-friendly interior.

Opposition critics noted the irony of Harper relying on a former Liberal and an unelected senator, Michael Fortier, to fill the hole left in his cabinet by the spectacular flameout of the Tories' erstwhile Quebec star, Maxime Bernier.

Bernier frequently appeared ill-informed and out of his depth in Foreign Affairs. He finally resigned after admitting he'd left classified documents at the home of a former girlfriend, Julie Couillard, who had past links to criminal biker gangs.

Not coincidentally, the shuffle took place only hours before Bernier was scheduled to speak publicly for the first time since departing cabinet in disgrace.

Canadian voters were hoping for changes in cabinet, according to a Canadian Press Harris-Decima poll.

Almost half (47 per cent) of those surveyed last week thought Harper should shuffle his cabinet over the summer.

The telephone poll was conducted between June 18 and June 22 and has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

While the mini-shuffle was clearly aimed at shoring up the Tories' Quebec flank, opposition MPs contended that Harper's choices actually only underscored his party's lack of bench strength, particularly in Quebec.

Fortier takes over international trade from Emerson, who had been doing double duty as trade and interim foreign affairs minister since Bernier's resignation late last month.

Christian Paradis, a young, low-profile, junior minister, was boosted to the senior ranks of cabinet. He takes over Public Works from Fortier and will also hang onto his responsibilities as secretary of state for agriculture.

The prime minister also brought James Moore, a well-respected parliamentary secretary from British Columbia, into cabinet as secretary of state for official languages, the Asia-Pacific gateway and the Vancouver Olympics.

The choice of Emerson to represent Canada on the world stage was a no-brainer, according to senior Conservatives. A reliable, solid, experienced minister, he was the logical and safe choice to bring stability to Canada's diplomatic team after the Bernier fiasco.

But if Harper hoped to wipe the slate clean after the Bernier-Couillard affair, his decision to promote Fortier was curious. Earlier this month, Fortier fired his top aide in Montreal after learning that Bernard Cote had been dating Couillard at the same time that she'd been lobbying his department for a contract on behalf of a Montreal land developer.

Insiders say Harper wasn't always impressed with Fortier's performance, but Fortier has lobbied hard for a new assignment and Harper opted to give him a chance to prove himself in a portfolio with higher profile than public works..

Paradis, a lawyer from Thetford Mines, Que., is seen as an up-and-comer but he too is tainted by association with another Tory scandal. Paradis is one of 67 Tory candidates whom Elections Canada alleges were part of the so-called in-and-out scheme during the 2006 election campaign.

The independent watchdog alleges that the scheme allowed candidates to fraudulently claim election expenses they hadn't actually incurred while allowing the Conservative party to exceed its national campaign spending limit by more than $1 million.

Given Fortier's and Paradis' links to scandal and lingering resentment over Emerson's defection, New Democrat MP Paul Dewar said Harper's mini-shuffle "either says there's a lack of materials to work with or there's poor judgment."

Liberal MP Denis Coderre said the shuffle "demonstrates how little bench strength the Conservatives have, particularly in Quebec."

He slammed Harper for putting an unelected senator who can't be held accountable in charge of "Canada's crucial trade relationships." And he said the fact that Harper didn't find someone new to take on Paradis' agriculture duties "illustrates that few MPs in Quebec have the prime minister's confidence."

Opposition MPs also decried Harper's failure to promote any more women to his male-dominated cabinet. Only seven of the 32-member cabinet are women, none of them in the most senior portfolios.

And opposition parties criticized Harper for failing to conduct a more thorough house-cleaning, moving ministers they deem ineffective such as Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Environment Minister John Baird.

Insiders said Harper was determined to ensure the shuffle caused the least disruption possible to a cabinet team he believes is generally working well.

None of the new ministers had anything to say following the swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall. Harper stopped only long enough to downplay the significance of the mini-shuffle and deliver a brief, steady-as-she-goes message.

"We're on track and we're going to stay on track," Harper said as he left the ceremony.

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