Harper unveils his biggest cabinet ever

OTTAWA - It's game on for the Conservative majority government as Stephen Harper announced a cabinet Wednesday packed with veterans and some new players.

OTTAWA - It's game on for the Conservative majority government as Stephen Harper announced a cabinet Wednesday packed with veterans and some new players.

The prime minister added one position to the team, upping its size to 39 — a third larger than when Harper first took office in 2006, and matching the cabinets of Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin as the biggest ever.

The large roster prompted cries of hypocrisy as Harper's decision to keep a beefed-up bench comes at a time when the government needs to trim billions in government spending to wrestle down the deficit.

But Harper dismissed the criticism.

"I think it's important to know when you're talking about austerity, that this government has reduced ministerial budgets significantly," he said.

"So the question here is not cost. The question is making sure that we have a ministry that is broad, representative of the country and tries to use people's talents to the maximum."

The prime minister also named three senators — all of them failed candidates, two of whom had quit Senate jobs to run for the Tories in the May 2 election.

Returning to the Senate are Larry Smith and Fabian Manning, while former cabinet minister Josee Verner, who lost her seat in the NDP surge in Quebec, will join them.

The Senate appointments were not announced until after Harper had held a news conference, at which he said his priority continues to be the economy.

"The mandate given to us by the voters of Canada on May 2 allowed us to focus on the economy and more generally on stability. If the economy is our top priority, we will be working very hard on all the priorities we campaigned on."

While there's usually a shuffle following an election, Harper was also left with six holes in cabinet thanks to retirements and electoral losses.

The man guiding the nation's finances, Jim Flaherty, is among the veterans staying in their posts, along with Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

In one of the biggest moves, political pitbull John Baird becomes the country's top diplomat as foreign affairs minister, replacing Lawrence Cannon, who was defeated in his Quebec riding.

Many observers had tapped Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney for the job, given his extensive connections in Canada's ethic communities and responsibility for much of the party's electoral success among those voters.

Kenney wasn't ignored — he'll chair the powerful cabinet operations committee, making him the government's chief operating officer.

Baird said he has the skills for his new job.

"I fight hard for what I believe in," he said outside Rideau Hall.

"As foreign minister I will be fighting hard for things like freedom, things like democracy, things like human rights, the rule of law."

Peter Van Loan takes over from Baird as government House leader.

In another big switch, Tony Clement leaves the industry portfolio to become Treasury Board president, and Christian Paradis takes over his old job. Clement faces the challenge of cutting billions in spending as the government looks to reduce its huge deficit.

Among the newcomers sworn in at Rideau Hall were Peter Penashue — the lone Conservative from Newfoundland and Labrador — as intergovernmental affairs minister. He is also the first-ever Innu in cabinet.

Penashue's appointment was one of several guided by political geography.

Harper's majority was driven by a slew of wins in Ontario, and a series of posts were doled out to reward the Toronto Tories, leaving longtime Tory backbenchers from the West out in the cold.

Rookie Toronto MP Joe Oliver, who snatched away one of the oldest Liberal ridings in the area, soared into a full cabinet post as natural resources minister. Fellow Torontonian Bal Gosal, who picked up a seat in the hotly contested suburb of Brampton, Ont., was given a junior position as minister of state for sport.

But talk of some high-profile new hires getting instant promotions failed to materialize. Neither former diplomat Chris Alexander nor pediatric surgeon Kellie Leitch got the call-up.

Harper said it's important not to rush rookies into cabinet.

"Any hockey coach will tell you that if a team is going to keep winning over time, it must maintain a corps of veterans and then gradually blend in new talent."

The mix of old and new held little appeal for Opposition Leader Jack Layton.

"While it might be a new cabinet, there are an awful lot of the same players there that steered the last government through contempt and scandals," Layton said.

"We'll give these new ministers a fair shot. We will challenge them when they are doing the wrong thing. We'll be on the lookout for every decision that they make on behalf of the Canadian people."

With the NDP taking most of the seats in Quebec, Harper's pickings for cabinet representation from that province were slim.

The prime minister campaigned there on the promise of giving rural Quebec more power and elevated four of five Tory MPs from the province to cabinet.

Maxime Bernier returned to cabinet in a junior role as minister of state for small business and tourism after a three-year exile. He was booted in 2008 after leaving secret documents at his girlfriend's apartment and forgetting about them.

Ed Fast from British Columbia enters cabinet as trade minister, while former Mulroney minister Bernard Valcourt returns with a junior portfolio as minister of state for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and francophonie.

All the rookies declined to talk about their plans for their new portfolios.

Ten of the 28 women in the 166-member Conservative caucus made it into cabinet, but none were newly elected MPs.

Former junior ministers Rob Merrifield of Alberta and Rob Moore of New Brunswick were dropped.

Members of Parliament elect a Speaker of the House of Commons on June 2, before the speech from the throne on June 3.

 
 
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