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Sure, Gary Mar's $264,576 Asian sinecure is sweet, but does it come with severance?

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Gary Mar, soon to be Alberta's 'envoy' to Asia

Word that Gary Mar is about to be sent into a comfortable voluntary exile in Asia by Premier Alison Redford prompted an instant and harsh reaction among many members of the Alberta public.

The Provincial Gag Reflex Index ™ moved sharply upward immediately upon publication Friday of the government's news release announcing the appointment -- which with apparently unintended hilarity didn't bother to mention that until just days ago, Mar was Premier Redford's chief rival for the job she had just won.

The salary, a nice neat $264,576 -- how did they come up with that number? -- seemed to irritate folks like sand on a sunburn. There was at least one moment Friday -- albeit at a gathering not particularly sympathetic to the government -- when the crowd broke into spontaneously heartfelt jeers at a mention of Mar's soft landing.

Moreover, Albertans will probably be even more annoyed when the penny drops that, unlike you or me, the disappointed Progressive Conservative leadership front-runner won't have to pay his own rent in hyper-expensive Hong Kong, and will probably have a decent enough living allowance to cover all the pork, barbecued or otherwise, that he wants. There's sure to be a nice car provided, with a driver to boot.

Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason told the Calgary Herald Mar should "get a real job." Liberal MLA Hugh MacDonald -- who himself knows a thing or two about the sting of not being chosen in a party leadership contest -- complained that Mar didn't do particularly well the last time he had essentially the same position, as Alberta's "envoy" in Washington, D.C., from September 2007 until last March when he threw his hat in the Tory leadership ring.

But obviously the political strategists in the premier's office -- who so far have called the public's likely opinions pretty accurately -- were of the opinion the outrage would be short-lived, and the benefits more substantial.

Reading between the lines, Mar's manufactured comment in the official Public Affairs Bureau news release was interesting: "Premier Redford and I had discussions on what my future would entail which included potentially running for office and serving in Cabinet."

I'll bet! Wouldn't you have loved to be a fly on the wall at that meeting? One can just imagine the conversation: "Just forget it, Gary! Here, how about this…"

Usually, of course, the best advice to a politician in a situation like this is to keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

And Redford has done just that with those of her former fellow PC leadership candidates who had seats in the Legislature. Doug Horner, Ted Morton and even Doug Griffiths have all been rewarded with important cabinet portfolios -- notwithstanding the fact Morton and Griffiths continued to back the wrong horse, Mar that is, after they washed out of the leadership race.

But keeping them in cabinet allows Redford to keep an eye on them -- and their ambitions or any bright ideas they might get about advancing them.

Redford may be alleged to have a have a manner with her underlings as blunt as that of Margaret Thatcher, but, by golly, she is not about to suffer Lady Thatcher's fate at the hands of her Legislative caucus if she can help it!

As for Rick Orman, the premier's advisers obviously concluded they could safely ignore him -- after all, he seems just to be a rich old guy who ran for the position to ride his hobbyhorse. If he really makes a nuisance of himself, though, they could always put him in charge of a commission looking into the rules governing the service of fresh fruit aboard business jets in Alberta's skies or something equally compelling.

Mar, however, presented a special case. He came so close, and obviously appealed to so many Conservative Party members -- indeed, more than Redford if you go by ballot first choices alone -- that he was bound to be an embarrassing "what if" if he hung around and things didn't go swimmingly for the premier.

What's more, he could have been a millstone in cabinet -- and he really would have had to have been put in cabinet if he'd run and won.

Even if he'd just lingered in Alberta and not run for anything, he would still have presented a potential "what if" scenario -- as former Tory front-runner Jim Dinning did after the accident-prone premiership of Ed Stelmach started to take turn for the worse after turn for the worse.

So from the premier's perspective, what if a few taxpayers are unhappy at Mar's new sinecure? The risks of that, someone obviously concluded, are less severe than the risk of keeping the guy around.

From Mar's point of view, the calculus must have been similar. Going to Asia saves him from the horrible fate of having to keep his promise and run for an office he obviously doesn't want -- whether or not Redford saw fit to put him in cabinet.

And in a funny way, his appointment even gives Redford's government an opportunity to fire a subtle shot across the bow of the Obama Administration in the United States, and to make Mar's lack of success south of the Medicine Line work for him while she's at it. "You didn't like the message that Gary Mar was giving you about our oil from the tar sands? Well, if you don't want it, maybe China does…"

All this said, there is a reason the premier's office released this terse little message on a Friday afternoon -- the traditional dumping-ground moment for news that is bound to be a pain in the Parliamentary rump.

This is because, once they've had a chance to think about it, Albertans are going to be asking questions about more than Mar's living expenses and the credit limit on his Government of Alberta Visa card. They'll be wondering, for example, what kind of a severance payout comes with this job should he ever decide, say, to return to run for public office again.

They may also wonder if he got a similar payout when he left his position in Washington, and if so, what it was.

Alert readers will recall that Mar's severance was a matter for controversy once before -- when he left the Legislature for Washington and said he wouldn't take his MLA severance while he toiled in the vineyards of the public service, then changed his mind and took it after all. During the leadership race, famously, he wondered what the big deal was, since everybody does it.

That's the problem, of course. Everybody doesn't -- if only because most of us don't get such sweet deals when we leave a job, for whatever reason.

For once, the probability is that this won't just be a topic of chatter in the blogosphere. Opposition politicians of all stripes are certain to develop a healthy interest in the details of Mar's excellent new job as the next election approaches.

Later this week: Some thoughts on what the future may hold for Gary Mar.

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

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