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Strap on your seat belts? Jim Prentice's cabinet is more like a drive down memory lane

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Stephen Mandel

Things were going to change in Alberta so much once his capable hands were on the steering wheel, Jim Prentice warned us, that we'd better make sure we'd strapped on our seatbelts!

Well, he might have given us a mild scare as he motored through the political equivalent of a yellow light yesterday afternoon by appointing a couple of unelected, well-off, older, gentlemen to his cabinet.

These two fellows may or may not turn out to be a matched set of wingnuts but, either way, they have no mandate to serve for long in important portfolios.

So when the dust had settled after Prentice's and their swearings in yesterday, in many ways the cabinet looked pretty much as it did before the Big Buildup.

Yes, some big names have been dropped -- indeed, the entire 4H Club of Dave Hancock, Fred Horne, Doug Horner and Ken Hughes, who in many ways epitomized the last generation of Alberta's Tory elite, is now gone.

But lots of MLAs tainted with the ruined Redford brand were visible in the ranks of Prentice's cabinet too -- it’s just, as NDP leader Brian Mason pithily explained, instead of using experienced MLAs too closely associated in the public's mind with Redford's misrule, "Prentice has appointed inexperienced, weak ministers, who were just as closely tied to Redford, though not as publicly involved in PC scandals."

"Diana McQueen, a rural MLA has been named as minister of Municipal Affairs?" Mason asked. "It's hard to see how big city concerns will be addressed by her."

It's also a worry, he added, that Prentice would appoint former rival Ric McIver as labour minister, "a man whose history suggests he does not respect the public sector and hardworking Albertans." Well, at least McIver promised during his campaign to keep the government's paws off public service pensions.

From the premier's perspective, notwithstanding the barbs they traded during the recent leadership campaign, he clearly hopes McIver will shore up the party's ties to its social conservative base.

The appointment of lightweight Calgary MLA Kyle "Leaky" Fawcett, meanwhile, as environment minister hardly suggests that the environment is going to be a high priority for Prentice's pipeline-obsessed government.

A couple of smiley new faces were also added to Prentice's cabinet: Maureen Kubinec, from the rural area north of Edmonton, as minister of culture, and Edmonton MLA David Dorward, an Edmonton MLA, as junior minister of aboriginal relations.

But of the 20 members of the new premier's new cabinet, 15 are veterans of the cabinets of premiers Alison Redford and Dave Hancock. Sixteen are male.

I don't know about you, but 75 or 80 per cent of the same-old-same-old hardly sounds like epochal change to me. It's hard to say what Martha and Henry, the late Ralph Klein's prototypical Albertans, are going to make of this. Probably not much. Here's a bet they won’t even notice, let alone be all shook up.

Under new management? Not so much, maybe.

That three members of the new cabinet if you count Prentice himself have not been elected, is highly unusual -- and pretty much stretches as far as it will go the Parliamentary convention that a few such people may serve in cabinet for a brief spell, as long as they are elected to the Legislature within an undefined but reasonably short period.

All three will have to be elected soon to have any legitimacy -- and that's bound to be attempted in a by-election because the PC Party, with or without Prentice at the helm, could neither survive nor afford a general election just now. When the inevitable by-elections come, don't expect Alberta’s Opposition parties to pay much attention to the quaint custom of giving a free ride to the leader of the government.

As for the unelected pair picked by the new premier, all I can say is I'm not sure I would have chosen the same two if it had been me wearing the premier's handmade cordovan loafers.

Stephen Mandel -- who served four terms on Edmonton City Council, including three as a popular mayor -- certainly enjoys a high profile and a degree of support among voters in the Edmonton region. But he is no follower, probably is incapable of taking orders from anyone, including Prentice, and has burnt just about every Conservative bridge between the North Saskatchewan and the Ottawa River.

As for making Mandel minister of health, while this huge responsibility obviously reflects Prentice's high confidence in the man, seemingly the entire health care community was shaking its head in bewilderment yesterday. Seriously, what does Mandel know about health care? You could argue, if you were so inclined, that his lack of a health care background a good thing. At the very least, hiring a guy who spent years trying to centralize Greater Edmonton to decentralize health care is an interesting strategy.

Mandel may look to some like an inspired choice today, but the danger is real he will turn into a loose cannon on deck when the guns start to fire at the privateers aboard the frigate Wildrose.

In the mean time, it is Gordon Edwin Dirks -- former school principal, school trustee, Evangelical pastor, Bible college administrator and cabinet minister in the scandal-plagued Saskatchewan government of Conservative Grant Devine -- whose appointment as education minister provided the biggest WTF moment in yesterday's cabinet announcement

Gordon Edwin Who? Gordon Edwin What?

Olav Rokne, a social media gadfly in Edmonton, pointed yesterday to the troubling views on homosexuality held by Dirks' church: "He had more than three million unelected Albertans to choose from. Why did Jim Prentice pick Gordon Dirks? He couldn't find someone as qualified who hasn't espoused anti-gay views in the past?"

What can we conclude from all this?

Above all that if Premier Prentice wants to persuade Albertans that things have really changed, he will have to do more than shuffle the lounge chairs on cabinet deck of the Titanic. Policy changes will be required, and suggestions are bound to be forthcoming soon, in this space as well as elsewhere.

Sorry, though. If you want real change, you're going to have to vote to change the government.

List of Prentice Cabinet Ministers

Jim Prentice – Premier, Aboriginal Relations, Intergovernmental Affairs; No seat in Legislature
Robin Campbell – Finance; Yellowhead West
Frank Oberle – Energy; Peace River
Stephen Mandel – Health; No seat in Legislature
Gordon Dirks – Education, No Seat in Legislature
Diana McQueen – Municipal Affairs; Drayton Valley-Devon
Jonathan Denis – Justice; Calgary-Acadia
Heather Klimchuk – Human Services; Edmonton-Glenora
Verlyn Olson – Agriculture; Wetaskiwin-Camrose
Wayne Drysdale – Transport; Grande Prairie-Wapiti
Maureen Kubinec –Culture and Tourism; Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock
Stephen Khan – Service Alberta; St. Albert
Ric McIver – Jobs, Skills, Labour and Training; Calgary-Hays
Manmeet Bhullar – Infrastructure; Calgary-Greenway
Kyle Fawcett – Environment and Sustainable Resource Development; Calgary-Klein
Jeff Johnson – Seniors; Athabasca-Sturgeon-Redwater
Don Scott –Innovation and Advanced Education; Fort McMurray-Conklin
Teresa Woo-Paw – Asia-Pacific Relations (Associate); Calgary-Northern Hills
Naresh Bhardwaj – Persons with Developmental Disabilities (Associate); Edmonton-Ellerslie
David Dorward – Aboriginal Relations (Associate); Edmonton-Gold Bar

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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