The Alberta Liberals shuffled their shadow cabinet yesterday in preparation for the Spring Sitting of the Legislature, an expected PC cabinet shuffle, and a provincial election expected early in 2012. After a rough 2010 filled with internal party divisions, incoherent messaging, and growing communications challenges, the Liberals need to be a lot more strategic in 2011 if they want to be a significant player in the political narrative building towards a 2012 provincial election.
With only eight Liberal MLAs in the Assembly, there are not many combinations that would make for a dramatic shuffle of critic portfolios, but yesterday’s changes includes some interesting moves.
There were a few interesting moves, including shuffling Hugh MacDonald out of the Labour critic portfolios and Kent Hehr from Justice critic to Energy, but most interesting move has Health & Wellness critic Kevin Taft shuffled aside to let Liberal leader David Swann take an additional critic responsibility. This gives us a pretty good clue about what the Liberals want to focus on in 2011, and how they might try to write themselves back into the political narrative.
Becoming the Health Care Party.
Health care was the dominant issue of the Fall 2010 sitting of the Legislature and is expected to be front and centre when the Spring sitting begins on February 22, 2011. The past six months of high-profile health care news stories, the firing of Dr. Raj Sherman, and the political battles that ensued make it a no-brainer why the Liberals would want their leader to be front and centre on this issue.
The soft-spoken Dr. Swann brings years of practical experience as a medical doctor that gives him a unique and personal perspective from inside the health care system, but that does not make his challenge any easier. As Health & Wellness critic, Dr. Taft has easily been the most well spoken and focused Liberal MLA in the Assembly. Carrying a wealth of knowledge collected after years working in the health care policy field, Dr. Taft was a formidable critic in that role.
As a strategy, it would be smart for the Liberals to want to become the health care party and the main alternative to the “lurch planning” of the Progressive Conservatives and the privatization agenda of the Wildrose Alliance. Putting their leader front and centre is one small step towards this and gaining more media attention, as NDP leader Brian Mason has discovered in his dual role as Health critic for his party.
The big challenge for any party is whether to emphasize the strength of their current team or improve the visibility of their current leader? With Dr. Taft having announced that he will not be standing for re-election there is a good argument to be made that the caucus should shift that high profile role to an MLA who is planning to stand for re-election. The challenge for the eight Liberal MLAs is whether they can afford to put their leader front and centre at the cost of putting one of their strongest players on the bench? It is a bit of gamble, but it could work for the Liberals.
New Liberal Critic Portfolios
David Swann (Calgary-Mountain View)- Health & Wellness, Executive Council
Laurie Blakeman (Edmonton-Centre) – Environment, Sustainable Resource Development, Culture and Community Spirit
Harry Chase (Calgary-Varsity) – Children and Youth Services, Tourism, Parks, and Recreation, Employment and Immigration
Kent Hehr (Calgary-Buffalo) – Energy, Education
Darshan Kang (Calgary-McCall) – Service Alberta, Housing and Urban Affairs, Infrastructure, Transportation
Hugh MacDonald (Edmonton-Gold Bar) – Treasury Board, Finance and Enterprise, Justice and Attorney General, Solicitor General and Public Security
Bridget Pastoor (Lethbridge-East) – Seniors and Community Supports, Municipal Affairs, International and Intergovernmental Affairs, Agriculture and Rural Development
Kevin Taft (Edmonton-Riverview) – Aboriginal Relations, Advanced Education and Technology