OTTAWA - The federal cabinet filled more than a half-dozen posts at key government boards last month with Conservative supporters, including one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's closest friends.

The high-level appointments were among more than 30 plums cabinet handed out in one day at the height of internal Tory strife and speculation that Harper's leadership might be in trouble.

The handouts included a posting for a Conservative adviser and close colleague of former Reform leader Preston Manning; another for the former director of the Saskatchewan Party; and one for a former Manitoba justice minister.

Critics say that, taken together, the entire round of patronage means Harper realizes he must "keep the troops happy" with an election on the horizon and Liberal fortunes rising.

But some observers argue that several top appointments demonstrate Harper is intent on changing the nature of Canada by stacking key federal boards with allies and friends who share his political and social philosophies.

"One way to change Canada is to destroy the institutions created by your enemies," said Stephen Clarkson, a prominent author and University of Toronto political scientist.

"You transform them by putting your people in to turn a Liberal institution into a Conservative institution, or maybe even drive it into the ground."

But a spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office says the posts went to qualified candidates, and that their partisan activities and friendships with Harper should not exclude them from the jobs.

"They should not be included on that basis, nor should they be excluded for that," said Andrew MacDougall.

The burst of appointments included a seat on the board of the Canada Foundation for Innovation for a Calgary oil company executive.

John Weissenberger is a longtime friend of the prime minister who managed Harper's riding campaign when he first won election to the House of Commons in 1993 and helped Harper win the Canadian Alliance leadership in 2001.

Weissenberger was earlier named chief of staff for then immigration minister Diane Finley, the wife of Harper's chief campaign manager and political organizer, but had since returned to his position with Husky Energy.

Other prominent appointments:

-Peter Menzies, who helped Manning organize and run a conservative research and training centre in Calgary, named to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

-Mark Mullins, director of the Fraser Institute in Vancouver who helped Harper develop initial policies for the Conservative party, named to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

-Bradley Farquhar, former executive director of the conservative Saskatchewan Party, named to the board of the International Centre for Human Rights and Development.

-Rosemary Vodrey, a former Conservative justice minister in Manitoba who introduced tough new measures for juvenile offenders, named to the Canada Council for the Arts.

-Joseph Wamback, a former Progressive Conservative candidate who also lobbied for tough measures against youth violence, named to the board of employment insurance referees for Ontario.

Most of the remaining appointments were to lower-level government boards and tribunals traditionally reserved for local organizers and party faithful.

Liberal and NDP MPs say the patronage is the latest demonstration that Harper has abandoned campaign promises he once made to introduce an independent process to vet appointments.

Harper introduced an arms-length commission to screen appointments after he formed his first government in 2006.

But he angrily suspended the reform when the opposition turned down his choice for the commission's chair. Harper has kept the commission secretariat operating, however, at a cost of $1 million over the last three years.

The Conservatives campaigned in the 2008 election with another promise to create the commission, but nothing has been announced since.

"He's going to have to explain to the public why he campaigns one way and then governs the other way," said Liberal MP Dan McTeague.

Author Robert Plamondon, who has written two major books about the Conservative party, agrees the senior appointments to boards and agencies constitute more than partisan rewards for supporters.

"If you want to change these institutions, that's what you have to do," says Plamondon.