Here are a few items to watch out for in Alberta politics this week:
Which of the four Liberal Members of Parliament will be appointed to the federal cabinet on Nov. 4, 2015? Most speculation points toward newly elected Calgary-Centre MP Kent Hehr being given a cabinet spot. Mr. Hehr, along with Calgary-Skyview MP Darshan Kang, were the first federal Liberals to be elected in Calgary since 1968. But will one of the two Liberal MPs from Edmonton – Amarjeet Sohi and Randy Boissonnault – get a cabinet spot? If not, it would mark the first time since before Jim Edwards was appointed as President of the Treasury Board in 1993 that Edmonton has not had representation in the federal cabinet.
Two Conservative MPs from Alberta – Edmonton-Wetaskiwin MP Mike Lake and Sturgeon River-Parkland MP Rona Ambrose – have joined four other Conservative MPs with bids to become the interim leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. That party has only had one permanent leader, Calgary MP Stephen Harper, since the party was formed in 2003 and is expected to choose a new permanent leader next year.
It was always expected that uniting the Wildrose and PC parties will be tough. Richard Starke, the PC MLA for Vermilion-Lloydminster, had some choice words for his Wildrose counterparts in the Legislature last week: “…the Official Opposition rather reminds me of the chippy hockey player that hacks and slashes in the corner and then, as soon as something similar happens back to them, goes running to the referee.”
In 2012, staff called for then-university president Frits Pannekoek to retire, citing questions around illegal donations to the PC Party and the institution’s finances, including the depletion of its reserve fund.
In June 2015, Athabasca University interim president Peter MacKinnonreleased a task force report on the university’s sustainability, which indicated the institution was facing insolvency in the 2015/2016 financial year. The report blamed over-reliance on tuition fees, the state of its information technology infrastructure, as well as staff compensation and the university’s location, for the university’s financial difficulties.
While the task force report focused on alarming terms like ”insolvency,” the university had small surpluses in its 2013/2014 and 2014/2015 budgets.
Some observers in the community have suggested that Mr. MacKinnon is playing chicken with the government in an attempt to force new Advanced Education Minister Lori Sigurdsonto commit to keeping the university in Athabasca.
Current Wildrose MLA Jason Nixon was a student representative on Mr. MacKinnon’s task force.
Politically speaking, it may have been an easier decision for the new government to make if an NDP MLA was not currently representing the area. If the constituency had remained PC territory, the NDP would not have to worry about Mr. Piquette’s re-election chances in 2019.
Now the NDP government is stuck in an odd position. Even if the new government wanted to relocate the institution, it would not be difficult to reallocate extra funds in the provincial budget to cover the deficits.
The new government also faces the question about what to do with the university’s board of governors after years of controversy. Like several universities and colleges across Alberta, the board is headed by someone with strong political connections to the old governing party.
Acting chair Marg Mrazek is a former president of the PC Party. While the Post-Secondary Learning Act gives the government the ability to replace the board, with Ms. Mrazek’s term is set to expire on July 24, 2016 the NDP may wait until that date before replacing the Tory appointee.
In many ways, Athabasca University is a microcosm for the challenges of regime change after forty-four years of Progressive Conservative government in Alberta.
But Athabasca University may be able to use its NDP connections to apply pressure to the new government. Mr. MacKinnon is the husband of former Saskatchewan NDP MLA and Finance Minister Janice MacKinnon, who served in Roy Romanow‘s cabinet in the 1990s. Premier Rachel Notley‘s Chief of Staff, Brian Topp, was Mr. Romanow’s deputy chief of staff during that period.
While the new government has been able to remain coy about the future of the institution in its first four months in office, residents of Athabasca will demand to know what the NDP has planned for their university. They may find out this week when Ms. Sigurdson is scheduled to meet with Ms. Mrazek and Mr. MacKinnon.