POLITICS

Ex-Afghan envoy Alexander joins Harper cabinet as immigration minister

07/15/2013 04:49 EDT | Updated 09/14/2013 05:12 EDT
OTTAWA - Chris Alexander was in his early 30s when he became Canada's face to the world in post-Taliban Afghanistan more than a decade ago.

He was Canada's first ambassador in residence to Afghanistan after the 9-11 terror attacks, quickly becoming a passionate advocate of his country's mission to save what he saw as an embattled, war-torn people in a scarred but beautiful land.

On Monday, still sporting a youthful glow at 44, Alexander was touted as one of the new faces of "generational change" when Prime Minister Stephen Harper handed him the immigration portfolio in his newly shuffled cabinet.

Alexander's promotion came after a two-year apprenticeship on the back benches where he distinguished himself as a polished communicator of the government's message — one also highly capable of the spirited bare-knuckled partisanship of the toughest of his fellow Tories.

Alexander increasingly proved his ability to throw political punches in the particularly acrimonious sitting of Parliament that ended last month. The Conservatives plunged in the polls amid the Senate spending scandal while Justin Trudeau, the youthful new Liberal leader, pulled ahead.

The promotion of younger caucus members such as Alexander is as much about countering the rise of Trudeau ahead of the 2015 election as it is about setting a new agenda for governing.

Alexander proved himself capable of blistering partisanship in the dying days of Parliament last month when he used a member's statement in the Commons to fire a rocket at Trudeau, under fire at the time for his paid speaking engagements.

Alexander accused Trudeau of "ripping off charities" and called him "a defiant millionaire Liberal leader."

"Make no mistake," he thundered, "the Liberal leader will not think twice about scamming the most vulnerable in our society or abandoning his best friend if he thinks he can make a buck."

Megan Leslie, the deputy NDP leader, expressed great skepticism Monday about Harper's youthful new cabinet members, Alexander included.

Leslie lumped Alexander in with 34-year-old Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, who was promoted to minister of state for democratic reform, and is probably the government's most fang-bearing partisan this side of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

"Ever since becoming an MP, Mr. Alexander — like Mr. Poilievre — quickly adapted to parroting PMO talking points. It's been disappointing to watch a former diplomat stoop to that level of partisanship," she said in an email.

"The one thing that's clear looking at him and Mr. Poilievre is that doing nasty attack politics is how you get ahead in Stephen Harper's cabinet."

Before entering politics in May 2011, when he won the long-held Liberal riding of Ajax-Pickering, Alexander had a thriving career as an international diplomat.

After his groundbreaking stint as Ottawa's man in Kabul, he stayed on in Afghanistan as the deputy special representative of the United Nations Assistance Mission until 2009.

He wasn't ready for cabinet two years ago, but Harper appointed him parliamentary secretary to the defence minister, a job that would eventually see him cutting his teeth defending the F-35 stealth fighter jet procurement debacle, among other things.

Most recently, he was the government spokesman for the deployment of a few dozen Canadian Forces personnel to Haiti, a Quebec announcement that highlighted his effortless command of French.

On Monday, he was one of the few new cabinet faces to address the throng of media gathered outside of Rideau Hall.

Alexander said it was too early to talk about the policy direction in his new portfolio, which he took over from cabinet heavyweight Jason Kenney.

But drawing on his long diplomatic career, as well as his two-year political apprenticeship, he kept the focus on the government's core message: jobs and growth.

"We have a proven track record of success," Alexander said.

"It's that diversity — men and women, east, west, north, south — that is going to ensure this government delivers the economic agenda that Canadians want, the financial security they want, the continuing creation of jobs, prosperity and long-term growth for this country."