Cabinet shuffles don't always produce a winning hand

CanWest News Service
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OTTAWA -Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expected to rearrange his cabinet this week, possibly as early as today, in an effort to revitalize his government and solve a handful of nagging political problems before jumping back into the parliamentary cauldron this fall.

OTTAWA -Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expected to rearrange his cabinet this week, possibly as early as today, in an effort to revitalize his government and solve a handful of nagging political problems before jumping back into the parliamentary cauldron this fall.

Harper is likely hoping that a major cabinet realignment might finally give the Conservatives the boost they need to rise above the 34 per cent mark in public support, where the party has been stuck since coming to power last year.

Harper shouldn't count on it. Recent history shows that federal cabinet shuffles have almost zero impact on the political fortunes of the governments that make them. If anything, shuffles are counter-productive in terms of popular support.

CanWest News Service and the polling firm Ipsos Reid have analyzed seven cabinet shuffles in recent history dating back to 1989: three by former Tory prime minister Brian Mulroney, and three by former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien, plus last January's shuffle by Harper himself.

In every case, public support for the government either dropped, or remained the same, in the months following the shuffles.

One reason is that Canadian voters see cabinet shuffles for the public relations exercises they often are, says Omar Soliman, an Ontario Tory and a University of Toronto political science graduate who has studied the art of cabinet making.

"It probably makes sense for polling numbers to fall or remain static following a shuffle," says Soliman. "The Canadian electorate has an almost 'antibiotic' tendency to spot bogus governance, and then reject it."

Consider the seven cabinet shuffles CanWest News Service examined:

•A major Brian Mulroney shuffle in January, 1989 had no impact on PC party standings, which remained at 43-44 per cent in the three months before and after the shuffle, according to Ipsos Reid polling data.

Gallup recorded an even worse result - a drop of five percentage points in the month following the shuffle.



•Another Mulroney shuffle in April, 1991 was accompanied by a drop in support from 20 to 17 per cent, according to Ipsos Reid.



•A final Tory shuffle in January, 1993, shortly before Mulroney announced his retirement, made no difference to the government's dismal standings of 17-18 per cent.



•Chretien's major cabinet shuffles also did little to help his political fortunes. After a shuffle in January, 2002, his government dropped from 49 to 45 per cent in the polls.



•Another Chretien shuffle in May, 2002 was accompanied by a drop in Liberal support from 47-43 per cent, in spite of the strong support Chretien received for firing his scandal-plagued defence minister Art Eggleton.



•In June, 2002, when Chretien allegedly fired Paul Martin as finance minister - an unpopular move among many Canadians - support for the Chretien Liberals fell from 43-41 per cent as expected, but was back up to 44 per cent four months later, according to Ipsos Reid.



•In January this year, Harper made his first cabinet shuffle, partly in response to growing public concerns about climate change. He appointed John Baird as the new environment minister. Months later, however, the Conservatives were still stuck at 32 per cent in popular support, the same level as before the shuffle.



Prime ministers shuffle their cabinets, of course, for more complex reasons than simply winning over voters.

Sometimes they need to solve a gender, linguistic or regional imbalance among their ministers. They also might want to help or hinder the political ambitions of an individual in their caucus, or deal with a cabinet scandal or resignation.

In Harper's case this week, he needs to address the weak performance of Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor by finding a minister who can effectively quarterback the war in Afghanistan, while also selling it to Canadians.

Harper might also choose to move Peter MacKay out of Foreign Affairs, where MacKay has struggled with certain files. (Earlier this summer, he wrongly stated that the North Pole was Canadian territory.)

But ultimately, any cabinet shuffle is a calculated political decision, designed to improve the ruling party's image in the minds of voters.

Who knows whether Harper - a well-schooled political scientist - understands the historic proof that shuffles rarely, if ever, improve a government's standing in the polls?

If he does, then his decision to undertake a midsummer shuffle may be attributed to another longstanding political rule - one that says whatever problems a regime runs into, they are not the fault of its leader, and can, therefore, by solved by adjusting the people around him.

"The ultimate motivation for cabinet shuffles," says Omar Soliman, "stems from the very ancient idea that 'a king can do no wrong.'"

Organizations: Ipsos Reid, Ontario Tory, Conservatives CanWest News Service University of Toronto Foreign Affairs

Geographic location: OTTAWA, Afghanistan, North Pole

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