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Cabinet Shuffle and the Road to 2015

07/22/2013 05:09 EDT | Updated 09/21/2013 05:12 EDT

A cabinet shuffle can be a means to revive a political brand. In the case of the Harper Conservative government, the recent cabinet shuffle was an attempt at renewal, bringing in new ministers -- including younger MPs in their 30s and 40s, and bringing in more women (four of the eight new ministers are women).

The aim is to have younger and (comparatively) more gender-balanced spokespersons for the government. It is also noteworthy that Stephen Harper announced the new Cabinet via Twitter, presenting himself as a 21st century social media savvy leader, along the lines of Newark mayor Cory Booker or Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi who have made frequent use of social media. Another politician known for his extensive use of social media, Justin Trudeau.

Though do these new faces in the Conservative cabinet make up for the recent scandals plaguing the Harper government? In particular, the Senate expenses scandal? Where the Reform Party - and its successor the Conservative Party - had once opposed an appointed Senate as signs of a corrupt and entitled Ottawa, it is ironic that the Conservative government is being tainted by this very same appointed Senate, in particular Senator Mike Duffy who can be considered the ultimate Ottawa insider, and who displayed a strong sense of entitlement in attempts to claim expenses for which he was not entitled.

This scandal has gone right up to the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), with Chief of Staff Nigel Wright having had to resign over writing a $90,000 cheque to cover Duffy's claimed expenses, and the Harper government has been delaying the release of e-mails pertaining to this.

Another betrayal of earlier Conservative/Reform Party populist principles is the heavy-handed control of MPs by the PMO, something coming to a head with some backbench MPs openly expressing discontent over this. This control by the PMO at the expense of MPs is part of a longstanding trend towards greater centralization dating from the late 1960s, something documented in Donald Savoie's book, Governing From the Centre.

The Harper government has brought about major policy changes, with cuts to environmental agencies (showing a distrust of peer-reviewed research), a neoconservative foreign policy openly opposing international agreements on climate change. However, in "how politics are done" it seems little has changed with the Harper Conservatives - from centralized control by the PMO, to protecting entitled insiders like Duffy, to getting dragged down by appointed Senators.

So, what about challengers to the Conservatives in 2015? Poll numbers for the Liberals have been strong following Justin Trudeau's victory in the leadership race - putting the Liberals ahead of both the governing Conservatives and official opposition NDP. While this is the result of a honeymoon period - for a leader who enjoys celebrity status - it does point to signs of revival of the Liberal brand, when a third place party is polling in first, it at least shows they are again contenders for power. A July 18th aggregate of polls by ThreeHundredEight.com puts the numbers at 34% for the Liberals to 29% for the Conservatives and 24% for the NDP.

In the longer run, anticipating the 2015 election, the Liberal Party - which has frequently been accused of standing for nothing other than winning elections - will have to seriously define what it stands for, something that will be important in what could be a three-party race in 2015 - with Liberals, NDP, and Conservatives all seriously claiming to be contenders for 24 Sussex Drive. Liberals will have to clearly show what policies they will champion, and how a Liberal government would be a better choice than a Conservative or NDP one.

The strength of the Liberals is that they can present themselves as the party of entrepreneurship and economic development while also championing a strong social safety net (healthcare, introducing national daycare), prioritizing helping the poor and vulnerable, and standing for environmental sustainability and the establishment of a green and sustainable economy.

On the world stage, Liberals will have to show what their vision of Canada's international role is, especially in contrast to Harper's championing of unilateralist and obstructionist roles in areas like climate change. How would a Trudeau-led Liberal government restore

Canada's reputation as a peacekeeper on the world stage? Ultimately, coming out strong on policy and substance can counter charges that Justin Trudeau is too inexperienced to be Prime Minister.

Already, on another area of traditional Liberal strength - human rights and multiculturalism - Justin Trudeau has proved himself to be a strong champion, having addressed an Islamic conference despite those who tried to create controversy over it (by contrast, any mention of Jason Kenney recently addressing an Islamic organization has been scrubbed from Conservative Party websites). As well, Justin Trudeau was an early supporter of the Idle No More movement. On national unity, Liberals can show themselves to be strong champions, with Stéphane Dion who was the author of the Clarity Act.

On the NDP-side, Thomas Mulcair can easily present himself as an experienced choice for Prime Minister, having served in cabinet in Quebec, and has been a strong performer in Question Period in Parliament. However, in the wider public arena, Mulcair has failed to make much of an impact, being dubbed "Mulcair the invisible" in one National Post article. This despite the NDP outspending other parties - $1.9 million to $1.4 million for the Conservatives and $44,602 for the Liberals - on advertising to try and define their leader.

Though maybe this will change when the 2015 election comes closer, as the choice for prime minister comes more to the forefront for Canadians. The NDP will have to shake off their third party image, while the Liberals will have to show their leader is ready to be prime minister. Meanwhile, the Conservatives will have to prove they are not a tired old brand, corrupted by an "establishment" they once campaigned against. Overall, it could prove an interesting election with three parties viably contending for power.