Opposition leaders say Prime Minister Stephen Harper's new cabinet does little to alter the government's course on controversial issues and fails to bring more women into the cabinet.

Among the changes in the shuffle on Tuesday, Peter MacKay has replaced Gordon O'Connor as the new minister of defence, while Maxime Bernier moves from industry to foreign affairs and Jim Prentice moves from Indian affairs to industry.

Liberal Leader Stephane Dion said the changes don't mean much. He told CTV's Canada AM on Wednesday he was disappointed the new ministers didn't own up to mistakes made by their predecessors, and pledge to do better.

"The ministers repeated the mantra of the prime minister: We did everything perfectly and this shuffle is only there to have better communicators to explain more to Canadians the policies that we are making. So that's why I'm disappointed," Dion said.

New Democrat Leader Jack Layton agreed the shuffle is more about optics than substance. He said the NDP wanted to see a change of direction on key policies such as Canada's role in Afghanistan, but that didn't happen.

"We needed a change in direction on the economy and we needed a change in direction on Afghanistan, bringing Mr. Mackay in -- who of course has supported the war in Afghanistan -- to replace Mr. O'Connor is not the kind of change that Canadians were looking for," Layton told Canada AM.

"He had to reboot his cabinet, and he didn't succeed."

Layton also said Harper's new cabinet didn't make any progress on bringing more women into ministerial roles. The new cabinet has 26 full ministers and only seven of them are women.

Prentice, the newly appointed industry minister, said the changes were more about continuity than making big changes in direction.

"It represents the steps that the prime minister wants to take to move forward with our mandate," Prentice told Canada AM.

"And that will certainly include a focus on the economy, keeping the economy strong, keeping taxes low, representing the interests of Canadian families and carrying on with all the other good work that the government has done in terms of rebuilding the military, putting the interests of families first and foremost and taking concrete action on the environment."

During his announcement on Tuesday, Harper acknowledged Afghanistan was an important factor in the shuffle.

O'Connor, the retired general and Ontario MP who has been shuffled out of the defence portfolio, was criticized as a poor communicator on the issue.

"The Afghan mission remains Canada's most important military and foreign affairs commitment in the world," Harper told reporters.

"We know there are challenges there. At the same time, the United Nations wants us there and we made a commitment to our allies and the Afghan people."

Bernier, a Quebec MP first elected in 2006, has risen quickly through the ranks to move from industry to foreign affairs, replacing MacKay.

"He's a young minister and he has a very strong point of view on economic situations, and also for the development of the government," said Harper.

"He has earned a new challenge, and I hope and I believe he will represent Canada in a very efficient way on the world scene."

Bernier will also be tasked with drumming up support for the Afghanistan mission in Quebec, where polls show little enthusiasm for Canada's military efforts in the war-torn country.

The Conservative minority government is expected to shift to a "second phase" with Wednesday's shuffle held at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.

The prime minister is expected to prorogue Parliament, deliver a throne speech and move to a new agenda beyond the five priorities it touted in the 2006 election campaign.

Some other cabinet moves:

  • Saskatchewan MP Gerry Ritz becomes agriculture minister, having been a secretary of state for tourism. He replaces fellow Saskatchewan MP and Revenue Minister Carol Skelton, who has announced she won't run again.

  • O'Connor becomes revenue minister.

  • Another new face in cabinet is Alberta MP Diane Ablonczy, who replaces Ritz.

  • Current Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl, a B.C. MP, becomes Indian Affairs minister.

  • Quebec MP Josee Verner becomes heritage minister, swapping jobs with Ontario's Bev Oda, who becomes international development minister.

Jim Flaherty kept his post as finance minister, despite enduring a backlash for the government's decision to tax income trusts -- essentially breaking an earlier campaign promise, and coming under fire for the government's equalization formula with the provinces.