New cabinet, new challenges
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, August 25, 2007

It was a fine hour for the prime minister. Announcing a late summer cabinet shuffle that included a new ministry for Gordon O’Connor, Mr. Harper paid tribute to the former defence minister’s historic retrofitting of Canada’s military and overseeing its honourable deployment in Afghanistan. In the matter of character, what you say matters less than what you do. By this standard, Mr. O’Connor stands tall.

By other measures, the cabinet shuffle covered bases by placing a new cabinet on election footing while hunkering down for the long road to October, 2009. If the government has not fallen to a confidence vote, an election must (under new fixed-date election legislation) then take place.

Honing Canada’s role in a world of economic, trading and military superpowers while resolving issues around demographic and institutional decline gives this government much to ponder whether or not it prorogues Parliament this fall. Other, more specific challenges must also be addressed.

Calgary MP Jim Prentice may charm Ontario, but can Canada’s new industry minister advance a productivity agenda without corporate tax cuts from its government? And can Gerry Ritz, Canada’s new minister of agriculture and Canadian Wheat Board, persuade western farmers of the benefits of a dual marketing system for wheat and barley? Or did the prime minister, by failing to place experienced lawyer Diane Ablonczy in a portfolio bedeviled by law suits, cut off his nose to spite his face?

Chuck Strahl is an inspired choice for Indian Affairs. Following the murder of a child by children on a Manitoba reserve, a nation largely inured to squalor and abuse found another reason to choke back its shame. Strahl’s tough love and wiliness, misplaced in agriculture, will be valuable on an issue that is no longer just about land claims.

More shame awaits Canadians if Health Minister Tony Clement doesn’t act decisively on his undertaking to educate them about drugs. A meta analysis published in July by The Lancet establishes a clear association between cannabis and psychosis. As the industrialized world’s leading cannabis consumer, Canada is now poised to become its leader in psychotic disorders. Nothing less than a “3 Tokes Law” will do: first offence, Dope School (for parents of young offenders too); second, fines; third, charges.

More education may be necessary for federal opposition parties who ignore predictions from former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed that the mother of all constitutional battles could pit Alberta resources against federal jurisdiction on the environment. Enacting the draconian Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act will be a defining moment for the province - particularly if sizzling property values tank, as they did under the National Energy Program, and politicize a new generation of Albertans. In anticipation, the Wild Rose Party has been formed to raise a ruckus and, if necessary, to oust Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach. Since last year’s surprise victory in the party’s leadership race, his ratings have dropped from 54% to 32%.

Of course, Albertans cannot by themselves keep the federal Conservatives in power but with Saskatchewan and Newfoundland picking bones over equalization, their best hope is Quebec where many eyes are on immigration.

Action democratique du Quebec leader Mario Dumont has called for a controversial new policy of “reasonable accommodation” for immigrants to Quebec but federal Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Diane Finley must be similarly aware that one million people entering Canada every four years places incalculable strains on social and physical infrastructures. Never mind overburdened schools that cannot integrate students, our highways, bridges and sewers are aging out. Worse, a new study from Bowling Alone’s Robert Putnam concludes diversity doesn’t work, prompting a Wall Street Journal editor to field the politically incorrect idea that perhaps immigrants should just assimilate. In fairness to all, but particularly to recent immigrants who need effective services, sustainability must become this file’s watchword.

And that’s just some of the challenges. With so vast a to-do list, this government may be forgiven for covering bases rather than hitting home runs but this, too, must be addressed.

An admirer of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s communications skills, Mr. Harper has in fact demonstrated such skills himself. Canada needs more of this because if polls are anything to go by, character alone will not win a majority government. A new Speech from the Throne would be a good start.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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