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Harper shuffles cabinet; Nicholson moves to foreign affairs

Jason Kenney isn’t known for holding his fire on the subject of radical Islam — and now he’s in charge of whether the Canadian military will or won’t continue to do the same.

Kenney took charge of the defence portfolio Monday in a cabinet shuffle that puts a definite edge on the team Prime Minister Stephen Harper will lead into the October election campaign.

Former defence minister Rob Nicholson took over foreign affairs following the abrupt resignation of John Baird from that position last week. Kenney’s former job as minister of employment and social development will be handled by Minister of State for Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre.

The triumvirate represents three of the most battle-tested MPs in the Conservative caucus who’ve all shown a willingness to take a hard line on controversial policies.

“The changes to the ministry announced today will help ensure that key portfolios continue to have the strong leadership required to advance Canadian priorities,” Harper said in a statement.

Harper had last done a major shake-up of his front benches in July 2013, putting in place what was supposed to be his A-team to lead the Conservatives into the 2015 election.

That was forced off course when then-veterans affairs minister Julian Fantino failed to keep a lid on simmering discontent among war vets. Harper pushed him out of that portfolio in favour of Erin O’Toole in early January.

Then Baird decided to quit. While Harper could have left International Trade Minister Ed Fast holding the reins at foreign affairs, the file is too big for the government to leave it without its own minister, especially at a time of global conflict.

“I look forward to representing Canada’s interests on the world stage as we continue to promote Canadian values abroad,” Nicholson said in a statement.

But New Democratic Party Leader Tom Mulcair questioned whether Nicholson was the right choice for the time, saying he never wavers from party dogma.

“At a time like this in the world that we live in today, it is a bit surprising you have someone who can’t reach out more than he can,” Mulcair told reporters in Toronto, also critiquing Nicholson’s inability to speak French.

Nicholson previously served as justice minister, responsible for much of the Conservatives tough-on-crime legislation. While there had been speculation he wasn’t going to run again, he was re-nominated in his Niagara Falls riding in late January.

But his role in the party’s electoral machine isn’t as key as that of Jason Kenney, freeing him up to be sent abroad in the lead-up to the campaign.

From Nicholson, Kenney takes over responsibility for the Canadian contribution to the air strike campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in its march across Iraq and Syria.

The mission is about half-way through the allotted six months and it will be Kenney who will have the task of deciding whether or not to keep it going.

He’s used some of the toughest language in government when it comes to denouncing ISIL’s actions.

“It is a genocidal organization motivated by its hatred of innocent people,” Kenney told the House of Commons in October.

“It continues to commit acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing, mass rape of women and girls, sexual slavery, daily torture and the beheading of innocent people, including children.”

Kenney will also retain his title as Minister of Multiculturalism as he continues to advance the party’s standings among ethnic Canadians, a vote key to keeping the party in majority standings.

For Poilievre, the appointment comes after years of incremental moves up the ladder of power since he was first elected in 2004 to represent the suburban Ottawa riding of Nepean-Carleton.

As minister of state for democratic reform he was in charge of shepherding through controversial election law changes, and will retain control of that portfolio even in his new job.

But when it came to getting a full cabinet minister position, he ran up against geographical realities. For years, there were already two ministers from the Ottawa area, John Baird and Gordon O’Connor.

With neither running again, it was Poilievre’s time.

At the helm of the employment portfolio, he’ll be in charge of reforms to the social security tribunal as well as the temporary foreign workers program.

Critics of the Conservatives often say companies use the program to avoid union workers at higher wages; and Poilievre has been a fierce critic of unions in the past and has supported legislation that would force unions to open their books to their members and the public.

Mulcair called it an odd appointment for a job that requires a range of partners.

“We’ve seen the abrasive character as he’s tried to work in the past on files like the new Elections Act,” Mulcair said.

“It was a bizarre experience and to see him moving up the conservative food chain is I guess no surprise if your purpose is to keep putting people off.”