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In pragmatic move, Premier Rachel Notley appoints former Tory minister from Calgary to infrastructure portfolio

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Photo: Premier of Alberta/Flickr

While tout le monde political Alberta was focusing on the province-wide municipal elections Monday, no one noticed NDP Premier Rachel Notley was busy cooking up a small cabinet shuffle.

Actually, shuffle is too grand a word. What got announced by the premier on Tuesday was too small for that, although quite significant just the same.

It was a cabinet enhancement, the addition of a single new minister -- importantly, Calgary-North West MLA and former Progressive Conservative cabinet member Sandra Jansen to the infrastructure portfolio -- plus two parliamentary secretaries.

It was interesting and probably meaningful that the premier made the announcement there would be a new minister of building expensive stuff in the hours after progressively inclined Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi fought off an effort to topple him by a collection of operators associated with both the Manning Centre and the increasingly Wildrose-like United Conservative Party.

As the provincial election expected in 2019 begins to appear over the horizon, everyone understands that the key battleground will be Calgary -- traditionally thought of as a conservative constituency but, as recent events have shown, maybe not.

NDP strategists obviously realize that most of rural Alberta is likely lost to them now, and barring a polling catastrophe, the Edmonton region remains their stronghold -- so their ability to hang onto government in 2019 depends on whether they can hold seats in Calgary.

So giving a portfolio to a former cabinet minister from the progressive wing of the old PC party, who not so long ago was campaigning to lead the Progressive Conservatives, is a pragmatic move clearly designed to position the NDP in the moderate middle, conservative enough to appeal to Calgarians and progressive enough to distinguish the government from the increasingly scary hard-right positions being taken by the UCP's leadership candidates.

Alert readers will recall that, not so long ago, the former national CTV news anchor was driven out of the PC leadership race by harassment from social conservative operatives suspected of being UCP frontrunner Jason Kenney's supporters, young Tory men of the sort generically known as the boys in short pants. She crossed the floor to join the NDP in November 2016.

The appointment of Jansen to the infrastructure portfolio will also free up former NDP leader Brian Mason, until yesterday the minister of transportation and infrastructure, to act as the government's pit bull in the pre-election period, a role in which he is likely to excel. Mr. Mason is Government House Leader in the Legislature as well.

The premier also appointed Jessica Littlewood, MLA for Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville, as Parliamentary Secretary to the minister of economic development and trade, and Annie McKitrick, MLA for Sherwood Park, as Parliamentary Secretary to the minister of education. All three were sworn in at Government House in Edmonton yesterday afternoon.

The appointment of Jansen is pragmatic enough to recall memories of Alberta's first PC government, led by the late Peter Lougheed, a leader Notley has been known to channel from time to time. Lougheed, of course, was a conservative who wasn't afraid to pick economic winners when necessary, and who once nationalized an airline to keep it from pulling up stakes and moving from Calgary to Vancouver.

As such, the appointment wasn't necessarily greeted with complete enthusiasm by every member of the NDP base. But Notley's caucus itself is tightly disciplined and mostly disinclined to public eruptions of discontent.

Meanwhile, former Wildrose MLA Leela Aheer, now a member of the UCP caucus in the Legislature, seemed yesterday to be trying to take back Mr. Lougheed's legacy for the Conservatives.

Leastways, in an email drumming up conference participants and cash for the Manning Centre, Preston Manning's well-heeled Calgary-based PAC for market fundamentalist causes and politicians, Aheer complained about uppity Central Canadians who are happy about the recent demise of the Energy East Pipeline and wondered what has become of the Western conservative heroes of yesteryear.

"When Pierre Trudeau brought in the National Energy Program we had Peter Lougheed," the Chestermere-Rocky View MLA lamented. "These days, if we want to have a Premier fight for us, we have to rely on Brad Wall."

One could argue this is weird, coming from a loyalist to UCP leadership contender and former Wildrose leader Brian Jean, who lately has been advocating policies to wean Canadian refiners from what he calls "Dictator Oil" that sound suspiciously like the elder Trudeau's NEP.

Jean, Kenney and Manning should take some time to straighten out the kinks in the UCP's party line at the Manning Centre's Western bun-fest in Red Deer next month.

By then, perhaps, Jansen will have figured out how to build a new hockey rink for the Calgary Flames -- and to do it entirely on Mayor Nenshi's terms. We'll have to see about that...

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca. 

Photo: Premier of Alberta/Flickr

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