As he prepared to be sworn-in as the 16th Premier of Alberta at Government House today, Jim Prentice aimed to project the image of a leader who is in command and in control of the situation. And today’s tightly controlled cabinet shuffle achieved that goal. Unlike previous cabinet shuffles, the news around today’s appointments was tightly sealed, with no leaks to the media to spoil Mr. Prentice’s opening day as Premier.
But did Mr. Prentice really give Albertans the change he promised with this cabinet shuffle? There are a few new faces in top positions and two unelected cabinet ministers from outside the Legislative Assembly, but at least fifteen of the twenty cabinet ministers previously served in the cabinets of Premier Alison Redford or Dave Hancock.
Without appointing a larger group of unelected cabinet ministers, he had little choice but to draw on the current pool of PC MLAs. If Albertans really want to see change in their government, they will have to do what people in every other province do from time to time: elect a new party to form government.
Viewed as having the endorsement of Corporate Calgary’s Oil Executives, Mr. Prentice’s choices for cabinet sends a message that the construction and expansion of oil sands pipelines will remain a priority for the Progressive Conservatives.
As well as being Premier, Mr. Prentice takes on the role of Aboriginal Affairs and Intergovernmental Affairs, both important roles when dealing with the construction of Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline through northern British Columbia and the TransCanada Energy East Pipeline to New Brunswick.
The Northern Gateway Pipeline, which would pump raw bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands to the port city of Kitimat, is facing stiff opposition in Alberta’s neighbouring province, especially from First Nations and environmental groups. Before entering the PC Party leadership race, Mr. Prentice worked for Enbridge as an envoy to B.C.’s First Nations communities.
Teresa Woo-Paw, the two-term MLA from north Calgary, is now the Associate Minister for Asia-Pacific Relations, an important position as the proposed pipeline would send Alberta’s raw bitumen to be refined and processed in Asia (likely in the People’s Republic of China).
How Mr. Prentice and Ms. Woo-Paw approach Alberta’s trade relations with Asian countries will also seal the fate of former cabinet minister Gary Mar, who was appointed as Alberta’s representative in Hong Kong after he was defeated in the 2011 Progressive Conservative leadership contest.
Expenses related to Mr. Mar’s patronage appointment have been harshly criticized by the opposition parties.
During Ms. Redford’s time as Premier, the Government of Alberta expanded trade operations in Asia, operating offices in China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. A new trade office was opened last year in Singapore and another will soon open in Mumbai, India.
Third-term Peace River MLA Frank Oberle is now Alberta’s Energy minister. It is unclear how Mr. Oberle will approach the role differently than his predecessors, but his connections to northern British Columbia may play a role in the government’s focus on Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline. Mr. Oberle’s father, Frank Oberle Sr. was the Member of Parliament for Prince George-Peace River from 1972 to 1993, serving as Minister of Forestry under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
His past relations with northern Albertans opposed to nuclear development may be an indication to how the new energy minister plans to approach opposition to pipeline expansion.
Serving as the defacto junior energy minister, Calgary MLA Kyle Fawcett was appointed as Environment & Sustainable Resource Development. Prone to embarrassing outbursts, Mr. “Leaky” Fawcett’s appointment suggests that Mr. Prentice might not be serious about tackling climate change and environmental issues linked to natural resource development.
The Auditor General reported in July that the Alberta Government has not been monitored its climate change targets and that its expensive carbon capture program is nowhere near meeting its targets for emission reductions. I sincerely hope that Mr. Fawcett sees his role as environment minister as more than a public relations activity for the government’s oil sands and pipeline expansion agenda.
On the environment and energy file, actions will speak louder than cabinet appointments.
Unelected Cabinet Ministers
Mr. Prentice handed the helm of two very important ministries to individuals who have never been elected to the Alberta Legislature. Former Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel, 69, and former Saskatchewan cabinet minister Gordon Dirks, 67, were appointed to cabinet as Minister of Health and Minister of Education.
Mr. Mandel remains popular among many Edmontonians, and is expected to run in a by-election in Edmonton-Whitemud, the southwest Edmonton constituency made vacant following Mr. Hancock’s resignation last week. His tendency to show thin-skin when he does not get his way may prove challenging when having to compromise with his new cabinet and caucus colleagues, or his political opponents.
Mr. Dirks’ affiliations with a socially conservative evangelical church have raised the ire of his critics, who worry these views may impact his support of secular public education in Alberta. The appointment of the former Calgary Board of Education trustee and 1980s Saskatchewan politician was unexpected, to say the least.
It is suspected that Mr. Dirks will run for the PC Party nomination in the impending Calgary-Elbow by-election, triggered by Ms. Redford’s departure from political life. The nomination is also being contested by long-time PC Party activist Pat Walsh.
Who’s not welcome in Prentice’s cabinet?
Thomas Lukaszuk, Fred Horne, Doug Griffiths, Ken Hughes, Sandra Jansen are all names that many Albertans have become familiar with over the past few years. These former senior cabinet ministers will now occupy seats in the backbenches (and have their offices relocated from prime real estate in the Legislature Building to the aging and stuffy Legislature Annex).
Also demoted were former Finance minister Doug Horner, who will take on the role of “trade advisor” for the Premier and former International Affairs minister Cal Dallas, who will now serve as a “Legislative Secretary” for intergovernmental relations.
The resignation of Mr. Hancock last week took many political watchers by surprise. I am told by sources in the PC Party that Premier Hancock was informed by his party’s new leader that he would not be appointed to cabinet if he chose to remain as an MLA.