It isn’t really a saying in Alberta politics but maybe it should be: When a Premier is in trouble, the cabinet gets growing.
That’s what we saw today as embattled Premier Jason Kenney made a major expansion of the provincial cabinet.
It is being described as a post-pandemic reset but today’s cabinet shuffle and expansion probably has more to do with internal turmoil in the UCP Caucus than any actual reset in the government’s agenda. Problem-creating ministers like Health Minister Tyler Shandro, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange and Environment & Parks Minister Jason Nixon remain firmly in place.
Kenney, who eagerly declared the COVID-19 pandemic over in Alberta on July 1, has seen his approval ratings and his party’s popularity plummet as it mismanaged its response to the pandemic and pushed forward with an unpopular political agenda that included opening the Rocky Mountains to open-pit coal mining, a backward draft curriculum for kids, and aggressive attacks against doctors and nurses.
Kenney’s unpopularity now appears to be spilling over into the federal scene and dragging down the federal Conservative Party’s support in Alberta, which a string of polls show at a historic low.
Kenney is so unpopular that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was able to openly mock him at a press conference in Calgary yesterday and there was no public backlash in defence of the provincial Conservative leader.
Facing dissent from inside and outside his caucus and party, Kenney has taken the predictable route of previous Alberta premiers who were in political trouble and expanded his cabinet. Appointments to cabinet posts come with the prestige of a ministerial title, office and staff, a hefty pay hike and are seen as a way to reward a premier’s supporters – and punish dissenters.
The past twenty years of turmoil in conservative politics in Alberta has given us a few clear examples of how cabinets grow when premier’s find themselves in political trouble.
Premier Ralph Klein’s cabinet grew from a slim 17 in 1992 to an expanded 24 by the time he resigned in 2006 after his party’s membership gave him a weak 55.4 per cent endorsement in a leadership review.
Klein’s successor, Premier Ed Stelmach, started with a cabinet of 19 ministers in 2006 only to expand it to 23 by the time he resigned in the face of a caucus revolt in 2011.
But perhaps most famously, Premier Alison Redford’s cabinet grew from 21 in 2011 to 29, including 10 associate ministers, in 2013, representing almost half of the Progressive Conservative Caucus. There was a running joke at the time that if a PC MLA wasn’t in cabinet they must have done something really wrong.
Yesterday Kenney’s cabinet had 22 cabinet ministers and associate ministers. Today, Kenney’s cabinet has 26.
I bet it grows again in a few months.
Shuffled around …
Jason Luan, MLA Calgary-Foothills, is moved from Associate Minister of Additions and Mental Health to become Minister of Community and Social Services. Luan served as MLA for Calgary-Hawkwood from 2012 until his defeat in the 2015 election to NDP candidate Michael Connolly. Luan returned to the Legislature in 2019.
Ric McIver, MLA Calgary-Hays, keeps his role as Minister of Municipal Affairs but loses his dual role of Minister of Transportation. McIver took over Municipal Affairs when former minister Tracy Allard was removed from cabinet following her COVID rule breaking hot holiday to Hawaii in December 2020. McIver was first elected as a PC MLA in 2012 and previously served as an alderman on Calgary City Council from 2001 to 2010.
Rajan Sawhney, MLA Calgary-North East, leaves her current role as Minister of Community and Social Services to become Minister of Transportation. Sawhney is seen by many political insiders as an up and comer in the UCP cabinet.
Muhammad Yaseen, MLA Calgary-North, leaves his role as Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration to become the Associate Minister of Immigration and Multiculturalism reporting to Minister of Labour and Immigration Jason Copping. Yasseen is a former president of the Pakistan Canada Association of Calgary and was first elected as an MLA in 2019.
New in cabinet…
Mike Ellis, MLA Calgary-West, leaves his role as UCP Caucus Whip to become Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. Ellis was first elected in a 2014 by-election and was only one of a handful of PC MLAs re-elected in 2015.
Nate Horner, MLA Drumheller-Stettler, becomes Associate Minister of Rural Economic Development reporting to Minister of Jobs, Economy and Innovation Doug Schweitzer. Horner is the grandson of former Member of Parliament Jack Horner and the cousin of former deputy premier Doug Horner.
Whitney Issik, MLA for Calgary-Glenmore, becomes the Associate Minister of Status of Women reporting to newly appointed Minister of Culture and Status of Women Ron Orr. Issik will also serve as UCP Whip. She was first elected in 2019 and was a longtime PC Party volunteer, serving as campaign manager for Jim Prentice during his brief run for the federal PC Party nomination in Calgary-Southwest in 2002, as a constituency assistant to former Calgary-Mountain View MLA Mark Hlady, and as policy co-chair of the federal PC Party during the 2000 federal election.
Ron Orr, MLA Lacombe-Ponoka, becomes Minister of Culture. Orr once declared that legalizing cannabis would spark a communist revolution and he wrote on Facebook in May 2021 that Kenney was raised by God to be leader of Alberta and public health restrictions are just as bad as getting COVID. Before his election as a Wildrose MLA in 2015 he worked as a Baptist Minister in Alberta and British Columbia.
Back in cabinet is Tanya Fir, MLA Calgary-Peigan, as Associate Minister of Red Tape Reduction. Fir was surprisingly dropped from her role as Minister of Economic Development, Trade and Tourism in August 2020. Fir was one of the UCP MLAs caught travelling on a hot holiday in December 2020, breaking the government’s public health restrictions.
Out of cabinet…
Leela Aheer, MLA Chestermere-Strathmore and UCP Deputy Leader, has lost her cabinet role as Minister of Culture and Status of Women. Her departure from cabinet is probably retribution for her publicly calling on Kenney to apologize after he and other senior cabinet ministers were caught breaking the government’s COVID-19 restrictions by holding a boozy dinner party on the balcony of the Sky Palace. Aheer also criticized Kenney for his tone-deaf defence of Sir John A Macdonald following the discovery of unmarked graves of children at former Indian Residential School sites.
Grant Hunter, MLA Taber-Warner, loses his position as Associate Minister of Red Tape Reduction. Hunter is currently on a province-wide ministerial tour of northeast Alberta with Justice Minister Kaycee Madu and Infrastructure Minister Prasad Panda. Hunter was the only cabinet minister from south of Calgary.
Other non-cabinet changes today included:
Joseph Schow, MLA Cardston-Siksika, the current the deputy government whip becomes deputy government house leader. Brad Rutherford, MLA Leduc-Beaumont, becomes deputy government whip.
After 6 months without a permanent Chief of Staff, Premier Kenney has named his Deputy Chief of Staff Pam Livingston to the role. Livingston started working in the Premier’s Office in January 2021 after the resignation of Jamie Huckabay, who was caught in the international holiday scandal.
Interim Chief of Staff Larry Kaumeyer returns to his previous role as Principal Secretary in the Premier’s Office.