The extraordinary ordinariness of this political shakeup is grounds for gratitude
Originally Published in the National Post: Thursday, January 04, 2007
RIDEAU HALL â€“ The setting is more than grand, but the ceremony rather simple.
I had come ready to think soaring thoughts about responsible government and democracy, but the rather business-like rearranging of the federal Cabinet yesterday highlighted the human ordinariness of it all. And that, I suppose, is grounds for gratitude; we are governed by others much like ourselves.
I rarely cover strictly political events, so this was rather novel â€” the media shouting questions outside the door, the portrait-lined salons of the vice-regal residence, the secretaries discreetly ushering you this way and that. In any case, I was invited as a guest (some of the ministers are friends from university days) and so was here attuned to the personal reality.
The ceremony itself, presided over by Supreme Court Justice Michel Bastarache, acting as Deputy Governor-General in the Governor-Generalâ€™s absence, was low-key. Indeed, most high school graduations are rather more elaborate affairs.
Each minister got up, read the oath, shook the deputy GGâ€™s hand (who knew we had a deputy GG?), signed the book and sat back down again.
Henceforth, the ministers will be known for life as â€œthe Honourableâ€ as Her Majestyâ€™s Privy Councilors for Canada. There is honour in it to be sure, but nothing to give the ministers a swelled head.
Though they will wield new powers, the new ministers themselves come themselves very much under authority. A few were summoned on only hoursâ€™ notice from vacations â€” one from a cruise, another from South America. Diane Finley and Monte Solberg traded portfolios, and put a brave face on having to learn two of the most complicated departments in Ottawa â€” Immigration and Human Resources â€” after having spent 11 months having just learned the other one. Ministers are given tasks, not necessarily the reasons why.
John Baird was given the environment portfolio, and looked much the same as when he was given the Ontario energy portfolio as that province headed into an energy crisis back in 2002. Is it a reward for doing well? One presumes, but with rewards like this, one wonders what punishment would be. Rona Ambrose, who had been left rather cruelly to twist in the wind for weeks before being shuffled out of Environment, was the class act of the day, gracious and kind, and no doubt relieved that it was all finally over.
A batch of new Secretaries of State were made, and for most of them their first task was explaining to their families what exactly a Secretary of State is. The rather more svelte Helena Guergis replaced Peter Van Loan in the sport portfolio, robbing the latter of opportunities for endless jokes at his own expense.
As a son of one of Canadaâ€™s â€œethnicâ€ communities, I have always been rather ambivalent about the multiculturalism portfolio, and so to see it return after being left out of the first Harper cabinet was not necessarily a good thing; but this time it is linked to responsibility for â€œCanadian Identity,â€ which at least means that rhetorically multiculturalism is linked to Canadian nationhood.
The new Identity Minister, which, when put that way sounds a little creepy, is Jason Kenney, a friend of mine and by all accounts one of the governmentâ€™s strongest performers.
He might start by promoting a little Canadian Identity in the grand salon used for the swearing-in; the whole thing took place not under the Great Seal of Canada, or a portrait of Her Majesty, but a gigantic painting of what looked like three lost undertakers wandering around a mausoleum. Long-time visitors to Rideau Hall might understand why it is there, but it was lost on me.
Afterwards there was a reception that was decidedly â€” and disappointingly â€” non-lavish. Departing from Rideau Hall in a taxi back downtown, we stopped at a red light only to find the Prime Ministerâ€™s motorcade stopped alongside, waiting at the same light. Few imperial trappings here. The government had new ministers, but one certainly wasnâ€™t going to make a big deal about it.
Which is probably as it should be in a democratic state.
Â© National Post 2006