Premier Jason Kenney's cabinet shuffle yesterday had very little to do with supporting Alberta's economic recovery and renewal, despite what the government would have you believe.
This is not to say the claim in the official press release that "Alberta's government is focused on Alberta's Recovery Plan, a plan to build, diversify the economy and create good jobs" is not part of the narrative the United Conservative Party will be working hard to build right through to the next provincial general election in 2023, or before.
But two key messages of Kenney's newly bloated 26-member cabinet are directed back to the members of the premier's fractious caucus: misbehave and you will be punished; support the team and good things may come your way.
The third asks Calgary voters to please stop thinking about electing New Democrats.
First and most important, the demotion of Leela Aheer to the backbenches sends a clear message to anyone in the UCP caucus who cannot abide Premier Kenney's constant gaslighting and entitled behaviour.
Aheer, who until yesterday was minister of culture, multiculturalism and status of women, famously dared to criticize Premier Kenney's defiance of COVID-19 restrictions during his boozy Sky Palace patio party last month, telling constituents on her personal Facebook account on June 5 that "our leadership should sincerely apologize."
She also had the temerity to speak the truth about the legacy of John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister and principal architect of the residential school system, another mortal political sin as long as Kenney is premier.
Aheer is now minister of bupkes. Message sent.
Rajan Sawhney, who until yesterday was minister of community services, also criticized the premier's rooftop dinner the same day, but her comments were milder and she had the good sense to make most of them in Punjabi on a Calgary ethnic radio station.
Accordingly, Sawhney has been partly forgiven and moved to transportation, a portfolio where she will not have the chance to use her empathetic qualities to actually help Albertans with disabilities. From the premier's perspective, that means she can do less harm.
The optics for the premier would have been worse if he'd canned both female cabinet ministers who criticized him, which likely explains Sawhney's reprieve. Don't expect her to remain in cabinet if Kenney has another pre-election shuffle, though.
Sawhney will be replaced in her old portfolio by Jason Luan, who as associate minister of mental health and addictions was tasked by the premier with dismantling Alberta's opioid harm-reduction programs. This change cannot be taken as good news by severely disabled Albertans who rely on government support to keep body and soul together.
As for Aheer's former jobs, Lacombe-Ponoka MLA Ron Orr was named minister of culture.
The new UCP culture commissar is best known for publicly musing that legalization of marijuana could lead to a communist revolution, seeing as one of those happened in China where folks used to smoke opium. He also recently proclaimed to his dubious former Wildrose colleagues that Kenney "is the leader God raised up for these times." So, regardless of what you think about his views on the Devil's lettuce, you can see why the premier likes him.
Kenney said he thought a rural MLA like Mr. Orr is ideally placed to ride herd on the government's Alberta Identity Strategy, that is, identity politics, Alberta style.
Perhaps during his many years in Ottawa, Kenney didn’t notice that nowadays well over 80 per cent of Albertans live in urban areas, making this one of the most urbanized provinces in the country. Arguably, though, Orr's appointment is an indicator of just how seriously Premier Kenney takes Alberta's cultural industries.
"We're trying to attract people here, not drive them away," said Opposition leader Rachel Notley of Orr's appointment.
The other two former Aheer portfolios went to Calgary North MLA Muhammad Yaseen, the new associate minister of immigration and multiculturalism, and Calgary-Glenmore MLA Whitley Issik, a former female football player, who inherited the status of women portfolio.
In the cabinet org chart, this puts Issik under the supervision of Orr, who presumably knows almost as much about what women voters want as he does about culture.
Tanya Fir, MLA for Calgary-Peigan, replaces low-wattage Cardston-Taber-Warner MLA Grant Hunter, who will return to the benign non-personhood of the UCP back benches.
Fir's mid-pandemic Vegas vacation weeks after appearing with the premier in a video earnestly advising Albertans to holiday at home has obviously been forgiven now that COVID-19 has officially been declared vanquished and Albertans are enjoying the Best Summer Ever.
Drumheller-Stettler MLA Nate Horner, a member of the UCP's COVID "skeptic caucus," was appointed associate minister of rural economic development. This achieves the partial restoration to cabinet, albeit only to associate status for now, of a member of Alberta's famous Horner political clan.
Calgary-West MLA Mike Ellis, the UCP caucus's former whip, ascends to the heady heights of associate minister of mental health and addictions, where the ex-cop from Calgary can continue Luan's work of dismantling the one of the few approaches to addictions proven effective at saving lives.
Senior cabinet players like Health Minister Tyler Shandro, Education Minister Adrianna LaGrange, and Environment Minister Jason Nixon, however, will remain right where they are as Premier Kenney doubles down on his attacks on health care, education, parks and the environment. Energy Minister Sonya Savage will stay on the job as well as Alberta's guardian of fossil fuel profits. So, no change where it's needed.
There will be no cabinet ministers from south of Calgary, which must be a first in Alberta political history and demonstrates Kenney's confidence he can hold the rural south, come what may.
On the other hand, six of the eight newly assigned ministers represent Calgary ridings that would probably vote NDP if a provincial election were held tomorrow -- so needs must!
David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.
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