Shuffle, reposition, hit the ‘reset’ button

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Think of it as the “war cabinet.” There’s an election coming and despite the two-year time frame between now and then, the government has to do something to try and change its political circumstance.

Premier Kathy Dunderdale’s cabinet shuffle this week is a deliberate attempt to do just that. This was not a minor change, it was huge, and somewhat commensurate with the electoral problems the government faces. The bigger the problem, the bigger the shuffle.

With two new faces and 10 ministers changing roles, the magnitude of the challenge before government is clear. The party is so far down in opinion polls that it’s all they can do to try and turn things around.

By the time you read this, you will have heard a lot of people talk about the cabinet changes. Political opponents will call it nothing more than rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. Some will  quote Shakespeare, saying the shuffle is all “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

The premier’s plan is a simple one and, despite the naysayers, it’s not a bad strategy.

Consider the political landscape for a moment. Your party is mired in the worst polling numbers you’ve seen in years, your leader is voted the most disliked in the country, and one of the parties big stars, Jerome Kennedy, has just abandoned ship, leaving the impression as he left, that like Tom Osborne before him, he had problems with the leadership. It may not have been his intention to do that when he resigned, but his exit did nothing to improve the Progressive Conservatives’ fortunes.

The setting where Kennedy and Dunderdale announced the resignation — a scrum with reporters — was an unfortunate choice. By its nature, scrums are hurried events, designed for quick comment and little else. Kennedy and Dunderdale both looked uncomfortable.

Kennedy’s resignation should have been a managed media event. There should have been a news conference, a proper announcement with family and friends, along with all of his colleagues from caucus. Instead, we were treated to one of the most painful exits we’ve ever witnessed.

When Danny Williams left government, he never did get his appreciation dinner, and I suspect Jerome will go hungry as well. Still, his leaving did provide the governing Tories with an opportunity, and to their credit they seem to have taken full advantage of it. Kennedy’s departure meant the premier could justify shuffling the cabinet in a big way and no one should blame her for jumping at the chance.

Public perception is reality in politics and right now the perceptions of this government aren’t good. Turning things around will be  difficult, and the Tories have limited options, so reworking the makeup of cabinet and adding “new” blood from the back bench is a good idea.

Dunderdale didn’t refer to the politics of it or the public perception she’s trying to battle when she spoke to the media.

She declared it to be nothing more than an effort at education.

“I really like moving ministers around because it broadens and deepens their knowledge,” she said.

But she did hint at the real reason when she said she hoped the shuffle would “reset” things for her administration.

Resetting things is what this is all about. However, simply shuffling names around won’t do it. What the government has to show is a different approach to governing. Call it style over substance if you want, but these “new” ministers have to be seen as effective in a way their predecessors were not.

The old cabinet made some moves that no one welcomed. Bill 29, the cutback budget, the amalgamation of school boards, etc. There has been little good news for a long time and the government’s popularity has suffered for it.

In fact, the government faces defeat if things don’t turn around. This war cabinet is supposed to signal that turnaround.

The next polling cycle will tell us if the “reset” is working.

Randy Simms is a political commentator and broadcaster. He can be reached at Twitter: @RandyRsimms

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