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Alberta premier sacks two rookie ministers in wake of poll

Steve Khan

Right on the heels of a new poll suggesting a decline in support for the Progressive Conservative government of Alberta, Premier Alison Redford announced a mini-shuffle of her cabinet yesterday, sacking a couple of rookie ministers who for different reasons had turned out to be liabilities.

Coincidence? I think not.

The telephone survey of Alberta public opinion conducted from Jan. 14 to 20 by Leger Marketing was covered by most media and commentators as if it were good news for Redford's PCs. "Tories are basically holding their own," said one of the usual suspects you can depend on the mainstream media to quote in such situations.

Indeed, Leger's own commentary interpreted the numbers pretty much this way. But buried in the results, and more obvious from the government's actions, are strong hints this may not be so.

Leastways, compared with the April 23 election results and an earlier survey, the Leger poll suggests the Redford Tories were trending downward by mid-January.

And that was before the premier's "State of the Province" TV address on Jan. 24, which was widely panned, the latest damning Elections Alberta revelations in the province's ongoing political donations scandal and now a completely unexpected cabinet shuffle. The government's March 7 budget -- bringing austerity, Alberta style -- is yet to come.

Yesterday's sudden cabinet shuffle, it is said here, suggests the Tories are looking at polls of their own that indicate their support is slipping even more.

The Leger poll published yesterday showed the PCs with the committed support of 40 per cent of decided voters, while the farther-to-the-right Wildrose Party led by Danielle Smith had that of 28 per cent.

The survey of 900 Albertans put the New Democrats under Brian Mason in third place, with 13 per cent, and the Liberals under Raj Sherman on their heels at 12 per cent.

This represents a bigger decline for the Wildrose Party than the Conservatives from election day, when the Tories received 44 per cent of the vote, sufficient to gain a 61-seat majority in the 87-seat House, and the Wildrose Party got 34 per cent and 17 seats. The Liberals had 10 per cent of the vote on April 23, which translated into five seats, and the NDP had 9.8 per cent, which got them four.

So, on the face of it, from the PC perspective, all would seem to be right with the world, with God in his heaven and the Conservatives in power forever more.

Still, the results may suggest a less rosy scenario -- or more rosy, depending on the kind of rose you have in mind. For one thing, the Leger poll may indicate Alberta voters are returning to their natural political homes -- at least for the time being.

Remember, Wildrose strategist Tom Flanagan has argued the key to his party's success next time is persuading what he calls left-wing voters to feel it's OK if they vote for the parties they truly support, whether the NDP, the Alberta Liberals or the remnants of the Alberta Party.

Going by Leger's numbers -- including the large 6 per cent cohort of respondents who indicated they would vote for another party not now in the Legislature and a big bleed to the undecided column, 21 per cent -- this may be what is happening.

In October 2012, moreover, a poll by Environics Research showed the PCs still enjoying a small honeymoon bump in support -- up a point from their election day numbers to 45 per cent, with the Wildrose trailing at 29, the Liberals at 13 and the NDP at 12.

So in eight months, support for the government appears to have dropped 4 per cent, or maybe 5 per cent, depending on how you look at it.

Naturally, government partisans will argue this is insignificant and to be expected after eight months. It's said here, however, that it's at least possible this poll is an early indicator the government should be worried, and universe could be unfolding as the Wildrose Party's strategists think it should as long as they can hold their vote in areas where they are now strong.

This is especially true in light of the timing of the poll, which was conducted before Redford's underwhelming TV message, before the latest brouhaha about illegal donations by public institutions such as municipalities, school boards and universities made to the Conservatives, and before whatever cuts are actually revealed in the March 7 provincial budget.

Will those things make further inroads into Conservative support? Well, that remains to be seen, but it is hard to imagine they won't.

Which brings us to the matter of Redford's cabinet mini-shuffle, also announced yesterday.

Gone is Calgary-Currie MLA Christine Cusanelli, who as Tourism Minister messed up spectacularly by taking her mother and daughter to London for the Olympics on the public tab and by letting her department spend $113,000 on London hotel rooms that sat vacant through the Olympics. She was also known to blunder into press conferences ill prepared to answer even the softball questions lobbed by the Alberta press corps.

It was the family vacation on the public tab that really killed her, though. The former school principal was made to pay back $10,600 in expenses submitted during her first five months on the job as a cabinet minister, including $4,000 for the Olympian jaunt, but the bad odour lingered. With the opposition daily accusing the PCs of corruption and arrogance, the premier had little option but to throw her under the bus.

Cusanelli will be replaced by Richard Starke, a first-time MLA for Vermilion-Lloydminster.

A strange coincidence will make the blood of many Albertans run cold when they hear this news -- and, no, I don't mean the similarity of Starke's name to that of the drummer of the 1960s guitar group knows as the Beatles.

Rather, it's that the last veterinarian from Vermilion in the cabinet was a fellow named… Steve West, Dr. No himself, premier Ralph Klein's personal one-man wrecking crew. West's name still evokes ghastly shudders and makes small children cry in some corners of Alberta, especially those near government offices in downtown Edmonton.

Gone too as Enterprise and Advanced Education Minister is Steve Khan, the affable MLA for the Edmonton bedroom suburb St. Albert, who like Cusanelli apparently only learned yesterday the axe was about to fall on his neck.

What sank Khan is not so obvious, although his replacement by cabinet veteran and Redford loyalist Thomas Lukaszuk, who has been Education Minister before and is also Deputy Premier, is seen by some as a harbinger of deep cuts coming in the budget to post-secondary education.

For his part, the St. Albert businessman is said to have found it impossible to say no to the senior bureaucrats in his department or yes to education stakeholders who wanted a meeting with him. Either tendency could have been a problem in the weeks after the budget, which are bound to be fraught.

Now, at least, he will have plenty of time in the PC backbenches for meetings.

If the speculation here is right that the PC government has been polling since the premier's message, it’s a certainty they know stuff we don't about what Albertans are thinking.

If they're doing something as dramatic as an unannounced a cabinet shuffle on a mild February day, it's because they have reason to believe the Leger results are just the start of a trend, one they're highly motivated to try to turn around.

Speaking of difficulties involving wild roses, a body found buried beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England, has been confirmed as that of Richard III, a political figure who left office suddenly in 1485 experiencing difficulties with a rose of a different colour.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary. NOTE: The Alberta NDP received 9.8 per cent of the popular vote in the 2012 general election. An earlier version of this post used the 2008 percentage, 8.5 per cent, in error.

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