OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made minor changes to his Conservative cabinet on Wednesday to fill a gap left by the forced resignation last month of Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier over a security scandal.
But Harper's choice of David Emerson, a former political opponent, as the new foreign minister and of an unelected senator to replace Emerson as trade minister were taken as a sign of weakness by the opposition Liberals, who appear to be gearing up for an election later this year.
Harper confirmed Emerson, trade minister since 2006, in the foreign affairs job he has held since the disgraced Bernier stepped down after leaving classified documents in the apartment of an ex-girlfriend who once had ties to organized crime.
"We're on track, we're going to stay on track," Harper told reporters after swearing in the new ministers. He left other key cabinet posts such as finance, industry and defense untouched.
Harper has credited Emerson, who was a Liberal until joining Harper's government in 2006, for resolving a decades-old trade dispute with the United States over softwood lumber and pushing through a controversial free trade agreement with Colombia.
Emerson also gained respect in Ottawa for his cool but tough reaction to U.S. presidential candidates' threats to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, calling them "protectionist outbursts" and "irrational."
In foreign affairs, one of Emerson's top concerns will be to work with NATO to manage Canada's military presence in Afghanistan, where more than 80 Canadian soldiers have been killed so far.
Michael Fortier, who was never elected, will replace Emerson in the trade portfolio at a time when World Trade Organization negotiations are coming down to the final crunch.
Harper appointed Fortier, a Montreal businessman and veteran Conservative Party organizer, to the Senate in February 2006 so that he could bring a French-speaking politician from Quebec into his cabinet as public works minister.
The Liberals pounced on Harper on Thursday for promoting Fortier, saying it proved he had little talent to draw on from Quebec, where votes will be crucial in the next election.
"This means that the minister responsible for maintaining and improving Canada's crucial trade relationships will be unaccountable to the Canadian people," Liberal legislator Denis Coderre said in a statement.
Fortier has promised to resign his Senate seat so he can run for a seat in the House of Commons in the next election.
A colorful character, Fortier was tight-lipped but jovial with reporters when asked about his new priorities as trade minister. "Spending five minutes with my daughter in the car before I start to work again," he said.
Replacing Fortier in public works will be Christian Paradis, a rising star from Quebec who was first elected in 2006. Paradis will also continue in his post as secretary of state for agriculture.
Reporting by Louise Egan; Editing by Peter Galloway