So what exactly is a principal secretary, anyway? And why does Alberta Premier Alison Redford need one? I mean, really, didn’t she just appoint a chief of staff? How is this principal secretary thingy she's just hired different from the chief of staff she's just appointed? Who is the boss of whom?
Hold it, let's roll the tape back to last Thursday, when your blogger was climbing off an airplane in Ottawa, hitherto the home away from home of Calgary Centre MP Lee Richardson, without so much as a laptop computer for instant analysis of the pressing questions of the day, such as body parts in the mail or how the Tories and the mainstream media would spin NDP Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair's visit to the oily sands of Alberta.
That was the moment word was Tweeted Richardson had resigned his seat in Parliament to become principal secretary to Redford.
As far as anybody seems to know, there is no generally agreed upon job description for a Canadian principal secretary -- although, in fact, there have been quite a few of these fellows, at least in Ottawa. The Wikipedia lists more than 50 people who have held the job or one a lot like it, and suggests it's the name for the top guy in a first minister’s office -- unless, of course, that top guy happens to be a chief of staff.
In Ottawa, Richardson played the role of a generally well-liked holdover from the days when Canada's Conservatives could be progressive too. But maybe he felt bored having been sidelined by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a far-right ideologue who doesn't take kindly to Red Tories, even ones most everyone else gets along with. Good lord, Richardson is even reported to have suggested in caucus the PM's polices sometimes go too far!
Given that he doesn't have a lot of clout with Harper's inner circle, it likely wasn't all that hard for Premier Redford to make Richardson an offer he wasn't inclined to refuse.
Which brings us to the premier's chief of staff. Back at the end of April, Redford appointed a Calgary lawyer named Farouk Adatia as chief of staff. Adatia, who was chief financial officer for Redford's leadership campaign, proved that you just can't keep a good man down, as long as he's got close ties to a successful premier.
Before the April 23 election, Adatia tried for the PC nomination in Calgary-Hawkwood, but was unsuccessful. Then it was rumoured he was about to be appointed as Tory candidate in Calgary-West after the first nomination there was controversially overturned by the party. When that didn't happen, he was appointed as Conservative candidate in Calgary Shaw. On election night he was defeated in that riding by the Wildrose Party’s candidate.
What he didn't have was any experience with actually working in the Parliamentary system or running a high-pressure political office -- a gap that is unprecedented in the ranks of people who hold this kind of job at this level of government. Even political strategist Stephen Carter, the ardent Tweeter who was the premier’s last oddball choice for the position of most powerful unelected person in the province, had more relevant experience!
There's bound to be some bitter grumbling in the Redford Tory ranks about Adatia's mysterious appointment, since there's a feeling his flunkies are going to have to carry him across the goal line every day and then avert their eyes while he spikes the ball.
Since his appointment, we've heard very little from Adatia -- although, in fairness, it's early days yet for this government, which has about half a year to get to know where the washrooms are, two and a half years to try to implement Redford's agenda, and a year after that to get ready for the next election.
Which brings us back to Richardson. Unlike Adatia, he certainly knows his way around a legislature. He was chief of staff to the sainted Peter Lougheed, the original proprietor of the Alberta Tories, from 1979 to 1983. He was Deputy Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. He was Progressive Conservative MP for Calgary Southeast from 1988 to 1993, lost for a term and was elected again as a (by now unprogressive) Conservative MP in Calgary-Centre in 2004.
Does this mean Redford realized -- too late, perhaps -- that Adatia lacked the parliamentary know-how, or perhaps the necessary toughness, to be a first-rate chief of staff? Heaven knows, a chief of staff needs to know how things work, and how to be hard nosed. When unpleasant or distasteful work comes along -- like firing a cabinet minister -- it's up to the chief of staff to get on with it.
Maybe this is why Redford felt the need to have both a chief of staff and a principal secretary -- a duplication of services that is bound to provide a nice bulls-eye for the Opposition Wildrose Party to shoot at.
Another possibility is that Richardson's primary role is to be oil-rich Alberta's "Ambassador to Ottawa" -- a well-respected voice that could represent this province's positions on oilpatch development and petroleum exports with equal aplomb to the court of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives or prime minister Thomas Mulcair's not-so-conservative government in the not-so-distant future.
Redford has said repeatedly she would like to develop a pan-Canadian energy policy and, in the face of an uncertain political future, a respected Parliamentarian like Richardson might work out well in that role.
But a case could also be made that Richardson, who has little pull with the market fundamentalists who surround Harper, could be less than ideal if the Harperites manage to cling to power after 2015.
Either way, the departure from Ottawa of Richardson will soon create the need for a by-election in Calgary-Centre. Already potential Conservative candidates are starting to crawl out of the woodwork.
This could provide the Premier with an opportunity to rap Harper's knuckles for so foolishly openly backing the Wildrose Alliance in last April's provincial general election.
While she's unlikely to be as obvious as that, Redford surely won't cry too hard or too long if Calgary Centre -- a riding, after all, that was once represented by the virtually progressive Joe Clark -- ends up in the hands of someone not entirely to the prime minister's taste.
In the mean time, we are left to puzzle out who will do what in the premier's crowded inner office.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.