07/15/2013 06:05 EDT | Updated 09/14/2013 05:12 EDT

Senate, Quebec ministers lose; women, backbenchers win in cabinet shuffle

OTTAWA - Among the ministers demoted or fired in Stephen Harper's cabinet overhaul, add the Senate to the list of big losers.

The prime minister effectively thumbed his nose at the scandal-plagued upper house, pointedly refusing to include the government's Senate leader in his cabinet line-up.

Save for a few months in 1926, it's the only time in Canadian history that there's been no Senate representative in cabinet.

Other losers in Monday's shuffle included Julian Fantino, Christian Paradis and Denis Lebel, who were demoted, and Peter Kent, Gordon O'Connor and Steven Fletcher, who were unceremoniously dumped from cabinet altogether.

Winners included eight Conservative MPs who vaulted into cabinet from the backbench, although only three of them — Chris Alexander, Shelly Glover and Kellie Leitch — were given senior portfolios.

The shuffle marked a victory for women in general as well, who now hold an even dozen of the 39 cabinet posts. While that's a historic high, none of the 12 control any of the all-important senior economic portfolios.

The only one who did — Diane Finley — was shuffled out of Human Resources and Skills Development into Public Works.

Harper is hoping the shuffle, combined with a throne speech in the fall, will help his beleaguered government hit the reset button at the mid-point of its first majority mandate.

And part of that strategy includes distancing himself from the Senate, which has caused Harper nothing but grief for months with an escalating expenses scandal that has swallowed two of the Conservatives' star fundraisers — senator Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin — and the prime minister's chief of staff, Nigel Wright.

The RCMP has launched a criminal investigation into the alleged abuse of housing allowances by Duffy, Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb, as well as Wright's stunning decision to personally give Duffy $90,000 to repay his invalid claims.

Marjory LeBreton, who did hold a cabinet post and served as vice-chair of the cabinet's powerful priorities and planning committee, announced two weeks ago that she's stepping aside as the government's Senate leader. Harper has yet to name a replacement and has left no room at the cabinet table for whomever takes on the thankless job.

One parliamentary procedure expert predicted Harper may live to regret sidelining the Senate in his cabinet.

"In my view, it helps the government to have somebody who is present at cabinet meetings and committed to the government's program to speak for it in the Senate and lead and guide the government side of discussion," Queens University professor emeritus Ned Franks said in an interview.

Without such a person, Franks said Harper may find it even more difficult to manage the upper chamber, which closed a turbulent spring sitting by defying the government on a bill aimed at forcing labour unions to disclose their expenditures.

"I think it just might make the process of getting the government's program through Parliament more difficult, to show this lack of respect for the second chamber," Franks said, adding that if Harper thumbs his nose at senators, they may choose to "thumb their noses back" at him.

"He might face some sort of rebellion."

Deputy Liberal leader Dominic LeBlanc said it must be "very humiliating" to the dozens of senators Harper has appointed to discover that the prime minister doesn't think one of them is of the same calibre as Pierre Poilievre —an Ottawa MP who has distinguished himself as a partisan pit bull and who was rewarded Monday with a junior cabinet post.

Poilievre has been a primary defender against allegations of Conservative wrongdoing during election campaigns — the so-called in-and-out affair and the robocall scandal — and has been contemptuous of the independent elections watchdog. He is now responsible for democratic reform, an irony not lost on opposition parties.

"No one really believes that Pierre Poilievre is the answer to Conservative ethics scandals or solving the country's democratic deficit," said NDP deputy leader Megan Leslie.

Poilievre was among the backbenchers promoted to minister of state positions, along with Alberta MPs Michelle Rempel and Kevin Sorenson, Manitoba MP Candice Bergen and northern Ontario MP Greg Rickford.

Toronto-area MP Chris Alexander, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, Winnipeg MP Shelly Glover and Barrie, Ont., MP Kellie Leitch made an even bigger leap into senior portfolios —Citizenship and Immigration, Canadian Heritage and Labour, respectively.

Quebec's senior ministers did not fare well.

Paradis — whose riding includes Lac-Megantic, the town nearly obliterated by a tragic train derailment — went from the powerful Industry post and regional minister for the province to international development, now an offshoot of Foreign Affairs.

Lebel picked up regional minister for Quebec and continues as intergovernmental affairs minister but was stripped of the Transport post.

The beneficiary of those two demotions was a third Quebec minister, Steven Blaney, who jumped from the low-profile Veterans Affairs post to Public Safety.

Fantino, a former police chief who underwhelmed at international co-operation, replaced Blaney at Veterans Affairs.

For ministers with presumed ambitions to succeed Harper one day, the shuffle provided an opportunity to pad their resumes with management of senior economic portfolios. James Moore moved from Heritage to Industry while Jason Kenney moved from Immigration to Employment and Social Development.