With the threat of a looming spring election, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Thursday moved embattled Environment Minister Rona Ambrose out of her portfolio in a cabinet shuffle amid growing public concern about climate change.
Harper, who came to power a year ago, expanded his 27-member cabinet by adding five new junior secretary of state positions while making some big changes.
Most noticeably, Harper appointed John Baird, previously President of the Treasury Board, to replace Ambrose, who has been lambasted by opposition parties over her handling of environment policies, at a swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.
The 37-year-old woman minister was instead made Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, a role that she has experience in her days working in the Alberta provincial government.
In other significant changes, Robert Nicholson moves from government House leader to Justice Minister; Monte Solberg gives up the immigration portfolio to become Human Resources Minister; and Vic Toews leaves his justice post to become Treasury Board President.
"Over the past year, we have been delivering change by getting things done for families and taxpayers," Harper said in a written statement. "Our new ministerial team will continue to deliver on the Government's commitments to Canadians."
It is Harper's first cabinet shuffle since the Conservatives came to power after the January 2006 election.
The move came as his government faces growing criticism over its refusal to honor the Kyoto Protocol, the UN plan that commits 35 rich countries to cut emissions from burning oil, coal and natural gas by 5 percent below the 1990 levels by 2008-2012.
In October 2006, the Harper government, which repeatedly said the Kyoto targets are unrealistic, introduced its "made-in-Canada" Clean Air Act. The Tory plan would implement regulations to make industries cut their air pollutants by 2010. It also sets a new target for cutting overall greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050.
Opposition parties and environmentalists have slammed the act, saying that the Conservatives has virtually given up Canada's Kyoto commitments. They demanded action to be taken now, and not half a century later. Newly elected Liberal leader Stephane Dion has already made the environment a priority.
The environment file has increasingly been seen as the Harper government's biggest challenge if it hopes to win next election, not to say to win a majority government.
A recent Decima poll, conducted over the past two weeks, shows that the environment is the No. 1 issue for Canadians. It comes ahead of health care, the military mission in Afghanistan and the economy.
The poll also shows that Canadians believe Ottawa is doing a poor job on the environment.
"We've clearly determined that we need to do more on the environment,'' Harper told a news conference after Thursday's cabinet changes.
"We recognize that, particularly when it comes to clean air and climate change, that Canadians expect a lot more." He said.
Another Decima poll suggests that at year's end, the Conservatives and Liberals were in a virtual dead heat in political support.
The poll, released on Wednesday, suggests the Conservatives had34 percent support, compared with 31 percent for the Liberals, a spread within the poll's 3.1-percentage-point margin of error.
Former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney warned last month that unless Harper moved quickly on the issue, other parties including the Liberals under Stephane Dion, who campaigned for the Grit leadership as champion of the environment, could claim the issue.
Canada's minority governments traditionally only last about 18 months on average. The Harper government faces a key test in delivering its budget in February or March, because the defeat of the budget would automatically trigger a new election.
(Xinhua News Agency January 5, 2007)