OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper called it "fine-tuning the ministry," perhaps because "recalibrate" was already taken.
Three weeks after he shut down Parliament to give his minority government an extended winter break to "recalibrate" its agenda, Harper performed a minor make-over on his cabinet Tuesday that left most major portfolios untouched.
"This is the cabinet that will lead us through the second and final phase of our economic action plan," Harper declared.
The cabinet changes, which touch on 13 portfolios, were headlined by a Conservative government pitch to wrestle down the staggering deficits that sprang seemingly from nowhere after the October 2008 election and threaten to march indefinitely into the future.
Stockwell Day, the former flamboyant Canadian Alliance leader who has mellowed into a yeoman cabinet performer for Harper, was moved out of International Trade to the Treasury Board, where he has a mandate to keep a tight lid on public spending.
"It will be essential for the government to restrain the growth of spending," said Harper. "The president of the Treasury Board plays a critical role in overseeing government expenditures."
Day, asked about his future cabinet vocabulary, deadpanned: "I think you'll hear two words: No and No."
But government economic retooling was hardly the theme of Tuesday's shuffle.
Senior economic portfolios, including Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Industry Minister Tony Clement, Infrastructure and Transport Minister John Baird and Human Resources Minister Diane Finley remained unchanged.
Also untouched were Defence, Environment, Foreign Affairs, Heritage Indian Affairs and Justice.
It is in essence the same crew that drove program spending up by 17.6 per cent over their first three years in power, slashed revenues by cutting two points off the GST, and is now projecting a $56-billion deficit for 2009-10.
"They were in deficit before the recession began," Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said in frustration Tuesday. "I don't know where Stephen Harper got his reputation for good financial management. This has been a disaster."
NDP Leader Jack Layton used one of the other high-profile moves of the shuffle - the demotion of former Natural Resources minister Lisa Raitt to Labour - to issue his own condemnation of Harper's economic priorities.
While the number and plight of Canada's jobless should be the government's main economic focus, said the New Democrat, instead the labour file is treated by the prime minister as a "penalty box."
"Jobs, job creation and the issue of our labour force should be a top priority, not seen as some kind of penalty box for a misbehaving minister," Layton said.
Raitt, who rocketed into cabinet within weeks of her first election win in October 2008, ran into trouble last year when she was caught on tape criticizing fellow ministers and referring to the medical isotope crisis as a "sexy" issue. She was on the hot seat again, accused of questionable expenses when she was president of the Toronto Port Authority.
If Harper really wanted to signal a new era of austerity, he didn't it do it by trimming the cabinet's bulk.
At 38 members, including Harper, the Conservative executive is close to the all-time high of 40 appointed by Brian Mulroney in 1984. Mulroney had a caucus of 211 MPs, while Harper's minority government has 145.
When Jean Chretien came to power in 1993, he slashed his Liberal cabinet to 23 members as a show of belt-tightening - a symbolic measure Harper dismissed Tuesday.
"I don't think it would be appropriate at this time to demote (any ministers)," said the prime minister.
"As you know, particularly for ministers of state, we maintain very modest office budgets compared to what was the case in the past. This is a tiny fraction of government expenditure and we watch them very closely."
And that might come closest to the truth for critics and supporters alike of the Conservative government: The cabinet changes were underwhelming and non-controversial, more house-keeping than cleaning house. And Harper remains the undisputed boss.
"It's a one-man show," groused Ignatieff. "I think there's never been a cabinet so under the domination of the Prime Minister's Office."
Among the cabinet changes:
- Two new ministers were appointed, both New Brunswick MPs. Keith Ashfield takes over at National Revenue and as minister for the Atlantic Gateway, while Rob Moore becomes junior minister for small business and tourism. Ashfield takes the Atlantic portfolio from Peter MacKay, who keeps the high-profile Defence post. MacKay faced relentless opposition attack for his handling of the Afghan detainee file before Parliament was prorogued in December.
- Rona Ambrose, a once high-profile woman who was seen as a disappointment in her first turn at Environment, is getting another chance at a big department, moving from Labour to Public Works.
- Quebec MP Christian Paradis moves from Public Works to Natural Resources, which oversees such hot-button issues as oil sands development, the struggling forestry industry and the future of Atomic Energy of Canada.
- Vic Toews moves from Treasury to Public Safety where he will have to deal with accountability issues at two key agencies: the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency.
- Peter Van Loan moves from Public Safety to International Trade.