OTTAWA - Stephen Harper is down four ministers following the federal election, but he has nearly three dozen new faces to choose from as he puts a fresh coat of paint on his cabinet to begin a second Conservative minority mandate.

One thing seems certain given the global economic turmoil buffeting Canada: Harper won't be listening to idle whispers that it's time to replace Finance Minister Jim Flaherty when he names the new cabinet sometime around Oct. 27.

Conservative insiders say moving Flaherty -- who got into trouble as the lead Tory spokesman in an economic hissing match with Ontario -- would undermine Harper's stay-the-course campaign message and rattle markets at a time when government stability is paramount.

As one well-connected Ontario Tory said Thursday, the prime minister promised "important and immediate steps" for his finance minister at his first, post-election news conference this week. It's hardly the environment for "on-the-job training" for a newcomer.

Flaherty is the longest serving finance minister in the G7 and was one of the only Conservative ministers given free rein to speak publicly on national issues during the election campaign.

Bay Street traders said his removal now is inconceivable.

"We're dealing with immense volatility on the markets," John Prato of TD Securities Inc. said Thursday. "The last thing we need is volatility in the political (arena)."

If it's safe to say Flaherty is staying put, all bets are off for the rest of the existing cabinet.

There are major holes to be filled, new regional realities to address, and the imperative of fresh faces for a government that failed to impress enough voters to win a majority against a weak and fractured opposition.  Four vacancies:

  • David Emerson, elected as a Liberal in January 2006 before leaping to Harper's cabinet less than a fortnight later, decided not to try his luck as a Conservative candidate in Vancouver. His shoes at foreign affairs are the biggest the prime minister must fill. Jim Prentice, the competent, ambitious industry minister from Calgary, could be the next foreign minister, some speculate -- not least because it's a tried-and-true method of keeping potentially troublesome leadership aspirants out of the country and otherwise occupied.
  • Monte Solberg at human resources did not seek re-election in Medicine Hat, Alta.
  • Nor did Loyola Hearn, the Newfoundland veteran who served as fisheries minister.
  • Michael Fortier, appointed to the Senate and the cabinet by Harper in 2006, failed in his Montreal election bid Tuesday. The prime minister has said he will not repeat the Senate experiment, leaving international trade temporarily vacant.

The domino effect of filling those four empty cabinet posts puts the entire structure in play.

There are also newcomers to accommodate. While the Conservatives gained only 16 seats in the election, wins, losses and retirements mean they have 35 rookie MPs.

"For all the talk of a status quo, the fact is there are many, many new, talented members of Parliament ... in particular women," said Goldy Hyder, a lobbyist and longtime Tory.

Harper has been heavily criticized for the lack of women in cabinet -- none in the biggest portfolios. Boosting the number of women would take away opposition fodder and help bolster the fresh, collegial image he has tried to portray in his first post-victory comments to the public.

Lisa Raitt, who took down Tory-turned-Liberal Garth Turner in the riding of Halton -- in Toronto's suburban 905 area code -- was the CEO of the Toronto Port Authority and is considered a strong cabinet contender.

The contenders:

  • Gail Shea, who served as P.E.I.'s minister of transportation and public works under former premier Pat Binns, is also a good bet to earn a federal cabinet salary. She cracked a longtime Liberal stranglehold on the island, has experience in government, and provides more gender balance.
  • Alice Wong's name also keeps surfacing. She unseated Liberal Raymond Chan in Richmond, B.C., and could add an urban, visible minority woman to the mix to replace the under-performing Bev Oda.
  • Shelly Glover, a police officer who served for several years as a spokesperson for Winnipeg Police Services.
  • And Candice Hoeppner, a longtime Tory party worker.

On optics alone, Glover, a bilingual Metis mother of five, presents a strong case for adding diversity to the Harper cabinet table as a junior parliamentary secretary.

Turning back to men, Bob Dechert, a veteran party stalwart and international trade lawyer, is likely cabinet material. His election in another 905 riding represents critical new turf for the Harper Conservatives.

Insiders suggest his expertise and party bona fides could vault Dechert straight into the international trade portfolio, although a warm-up act is more feasible.

Former Global-TV anchor Peter Kent is another high-profile, well-spoken Toronto-area newcomer. But sources suggest Harper would have to overcome his aversion to strong-willed media types to entrust Kent with a significant cabinet post.

Peter MacKay will likely stay put at defence, but Gerry Ritz could be in trouble for his performance at agriculture during the listeriosis outbreak.

Tony Clement is said to be tired of providing provincial bedpans as health minister and anxious to switch portfolios after more than two years in the scrubs. He covets foreign affairs and international trade.

And Diane Ablonczy, the razor-sharp, workaholic Alberta veteran who was seriously under-utilized as a late-coming secretary of state in Harper's last cabinet, is due for bigger responsibilities. Same with James Moore, the young, smart, bilingual British Columbian.

Sources say a strong, bilingual hand is needed at heritage to shore up a perceived weak spot in the Conservative armour after the party was savaged during the election for relatively minor funding cuts to arts and culture programs.

And that leaves Quebec.

The Conservatives added no new Quebec seats after lavishing attention on the province throughout its first two-and-a-half-year mandate.

Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon, Jean-Pierre Blackburn at Labour, Heritage Minister Josee Verner and Public Works Minister Christian Paradis should all find berths in the next cabinet, if only because Harper's options are so limited.

The wild card, or joker, in the deck: Maxime Bernier.

The former foreign minister lost his job for leaving classified NATO documents at his girlfriend's house and became the butt of comedic punchlines everywhere. But he was re-elected in his Beauce riding with a whopping 62 per cent of the popular vote.

Bernier has let it be widely known that he's expecting another cabinet job.