Shuffled out of cabinet – but hopefully not forgotten

Conservative MP Peter Kent won a third term in Thornhill.
Conservative MP Peter Kent won a third term in Thornhill. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

OTTAWA – It’s the day after Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet shuffle, and Peter Kent is doing some yard work at his home north of Toronto, then it’s off to the city for lunch.

You know – backbench MP stuff.

“I feel somewhat relieved to get my identity back,” says Kent, who represents Thornhill, Ont.

The former environment minister was one of three politicians shuffled out of cabinet Monday, along with former minister of state for transport Steven Fletcher, and chief government whip Gordon O’Connor.

It was part of what Harper called “generational change” for his government, with his new cabinet comprising a mix of experience, youth and women.

And for Kent, Fletcher and O’Connor, that means they no longer have a seat at the table.

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So what does it mean to be back on the backbench, or in some cases, out of the front row for the first time?

A mix of relief, regret, and a newfound freedom.

“I’m really looking forward to what will be a new experience for me as a backbench Parliamentarian,” said Kent, who served in cabinet since he was elected in 2008. He intends to run again in 2015.

“I’ve never really had a chance to enjoy the unconstrained pleasures of being a backbencher.”

He calls his cabinet experience “one of the greatest of my life” – even if he found it tough to please everyone.

“My experience as minister of the environment is that folks either think we’re doing too much or not enough,” he said.

Kent said he’s proud of his accomplishments at Environment Canada – such as wastewaster regulation, changes to the Species at Risk Act and overseeing greenhouse gas regulations for vehicle emissions.

But he regrets he wasn’t able to implement greenhouse gas regulations for the oil and gas industry.

“I’m frustrated at some of the work that was not completed,” he said.

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“It’s taken longer to get agreement with partners and stakeholders than we all would have liked I think.”

He said he’ll do everything he can to support his successor at environment, former health minister Leona Aglukkaq, in meeting targets set out at the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference.

“It’s a really fine line that one has to walk in getting the most ambitious regulations possible without compromising investment or putting jobs at risk,” he said.

Reached at his constituency office in Winnipeg, Fletcher said he knew well in advance that he was out of cabinet, where he spent the past five years as minister of state for democratic reform and later transport.

Fletcher, Canada’s first quadriplegic cabinet minister, said he’s pleased with his work on difficult files such as Canada Post, Via Rail and Canadian Air Transport Security Authority.

“In my life I’ve gone through a lot worse, much worse,” said Fletcher, who was paralyzed in 1996 after his car hit a moose.

“It brings perspective to what we’re talking about.”

He said he understands why Harper shuffled his cabinet to include more female MPs, including two from Manitoba: Heritage and Official Languages Minister Shelly Glover, and Candice Bergen, minister of state for social development.

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His cabinet position no longer exists, while infrastructure and transport – in recent years one cabinet post- were split between Ministers Denis Lebel and Lisa Raitt, respectively.

Fletcher, a former engineer, intends to use his time out of cabinet to explore topics that interest him, including resource extraction and Canadian history.

It’s also a chance to showcase his sense of humour, lost to the public outside the confines of closed-door caucus meetings.

Upon being removed from cabinet Monday, Fletcher tweeted: “I am Conservative. I am a traditionalist. I wish I left Cabinet in the traditional way— with a sex scandal!”

“I can joke around a little bit more,” said Fletcher.

“The stakes are less high when one’s not in cabinet so I intend to enjoy the freedom, the flexibility.”

And, perhaps ironically, he may be more visible.

“I’m going to be much more accessible to the media. Somebody calls me, it doesn’t have to go through any filter,” said Fletcher. He added he’s still part of the cabinet treasury board committee as an alternate, and has already booked his election sign locations for 2015, 2019 and 2023.

O’Connor, through an assistant, turned down an interview request.

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Kent, a former journalist, agrees he will be much more available to journalists – some of whom he calls “more fair and balanced than others.”

“There are some of my former colleagues who thought that I was not available enough as minister. But as a backbencher, I’ll be much more available to opine,” he says.

“I’ll be so available the media will probably criticize me for that.”