Thu, Aug 16, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Canadian prime minister reshuffles Cabinet

AFGHANISTAN ROLE Defense minister Gordon O'Conner lost his job following a series of missteps over the Afghan mission. Foreign Minister Peter MacKay has replaced him


Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper sought new life for his minority government on Tuesday by reshuffling his Cabinet, notably replacing his defense chief who was accused of mishandling Canada's military involvement in Afghanistan.

Harper replaced defense minister Gordon O'Connor after a series of blunders regarding the Canadian mission in Afghanistan, including a fracas over their handling of Afghan prisoners, misstatements over the future mission profile and over burials for soldiers killed in the conflict.

The missteps had made O'Connor a lightning rod for criticism from the opposition, and threatened to weaken the government.

In a news conference, Harper emphasized the importance of the 2,500-troop force's role in Afghanistan to his government.

"Obviously the Afghan mission remains Canada's most important military and foreign affairs commitment in the world," he said.

Replacing O'Connor is Foreign Minister Peter MacKay, 41, who gives up his post to Industry Minister Maxime Bernier.

In all, nine people got new posts in the Cabinet shakeup seen by analysts as a bid by Harper to breath new life into his Conservative party ahead of possible federal elections.

"I've given some new assignments to ministers for the next phase of our mandate, to broaden their base of experience and build the team for the longer term," Harper said.

"We did what we said we were going to do. Now it's time to keep moving forward," he said, listing priority areas as "asserting and defending our sovereignty ... continuing to lower taxes," tackling crime and protecting the environment.

Numerous analysts said Harper had needed to name to key posts officials who could better enunciate and defend the politically sensitive Afghan mission, after 22 Canadian soldiers have died there this year.

The mission threatens to dominate politics in Quebec province, the source of the majority of the military contingent in Afghanistan. Polls show that most voters in the francophone province, which can be crucial in national elections, are hostile to the mission.

And while Harper needs to strengthen his party's presence in Quebec if he hopes to gain a majority government, anti-war sentiment there threatens to grow with each new soldier death.

McGill University political scientist Antonia Maioni said the recomposition of the Cabinet aimed at reenergizing the Conservative government.

The opposition, led by Liberal Party chief Stephane Dion, characterized the second Cabinet shakeup in eight months as little more than "musical chairs."

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