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Cabinet-making in a shallow talent pool: What's Alberta's Jim Prentice going to do?

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Jim Prentice

Never mind the transition team. What about the cabinet?

It's not just a question of who will be in Alberta Premier Select Jim Prentice's minimalist new pre-general-election Progressive Conservative cabinet -- Ken Hughes, c'mon down! -- but who won't be.

It's also a question of who gets stiffed, regionally speaking: Calgary, Edmonton, or the countryside -- which has already gone over to the Wildrose insurgency?

Cabinet-making before the high-profile candidates Prentice has promised can step up to the plate is a serious political problem for the new Tory leader, made no easier by his promise to keep the size of his cabinet small.

All small-c conservative leaders make this promise at the start of their terms, by the way, because it seems fiscally responsible to people who aren't paying much attention, a large cohort of citizens otherwise known as "voters."

All of them eventually break it, because it's hard to run a cabinet government with a ministry that's too small, and because the exigencies of the Westminster single-member system demand regions and voter groups get their voice in cabinet. In the end, it's easier to try to deke out voters than offend special and regional interests.

Disgraced former premier Alison Redford was atypical in that she actually attempted to game the electorate, by having a big cabinet but pretending it was small by not counting so-called associate ministers who (allegedly) reported to a senior minister. It was all pre-captured carbon smoke from a diminishing supply of dry ice, and mirrors that were later requisitioned for the use in two bathrooms of the Sky Palace.

For Prentice, it's going to be the second big challenge after getting a seat as an MLA for himself, which won't be easy since voters are itching to teach his Tories a thing or two and the Opposition parties are likely to waive the traditional free ride given to a new government leader.

So, getting back to the cabinet -- the one he has to put together from the current extremely shallow pool of talent…. Hughes will likely be in it because he's competent and because he did Prentice a favour by dropping out of the leadership race when asked to do so by the Prentice campaign.

But the other three members of the Legislative 4H Club -- Dave Hancock, Doug Horner, and Fred Horne -- together pose a bigger problem for the new premier.

They're all reasonably competent, and this is not something you can say about a majority of the members of the current PC caucus. Indeed, with two or three exceptions, they may be about the only competent people Mr. Prentice has got left. So, in that regard, he can hardly afford to do without them.

On the other hand, they're all politically tainted, having played big roles in the Redford Government, so he risks big trouble if he has anything to do with them.

When he took over as premier pro tempore after Redford was fired by her own caucus, Hancock became the chief excuse-maker for the sins of the Redford Regime. Everybody wishes him well on the bench or wherever he ends up post election, but at this point he's hardly an asset to the party he served for so long.

Horne's the man who canned the entire Alberta Health Services board, an error of judgment so grave Prentice made complaining about it and promising to fix it major plank in his platform. He can hardly invite Horne back, especially to the health portfolio, without looking like a genuine pratt.

Horner's the fellow who came up with Alberta’s novel method of making confusing separate Finance Department reports for operating expenses, capital expenses and savings, which almost everybody else seems to hate … even Prentice. On the other hand, he's been loyally supporting Mr. Prentice's campaign -- loyal support being something Mr. Horner seems to specialize in.

What to do? Prentice can hardly throw the old crowd under the bus at the same time as he's putting some of them back in the driver's seat. Maybe he'll pick one and symbolically toss out the other two

If he keeps many of the 4H crowd around, it'll certainly be hard to distinguish Mr. Prentice's cabinet from Hancock’s -- which was all but identical to Redford's until the leadership race began and infrastructure minister Ric McIver and labour minister (and former deputy premier) Thomas Lukaszuk dropped out to run against Prentice.

So what about those two? They did poorly in the leadership race because they were tarnished with the sins of the Redford Government -- Lukaszuk for his "Bitumen Bubble" cuts to post-secondary education even before the details of his cellular phone bill hit the fan mid-campaign; McIver for his murky role in the Sky Palace affair (did he approve it, or stop it?) and the hinky feeling his social conservative connections obviously gave a lot of party members.

With McIver and Lukaszuk, Prentice is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. If they all kiss and make up, cabinet will look like the same old sinners. If they don't, the new premier will look like a graceless winner. I'd say the second option's the better one from an optical perspective.

Other than that, well, there's West Yellowhead MLA Robin Campbell, who has already been appointed to Prentice's transition team. It never hurts to have a little union common sense in your cabinet, something Campbell can provide as a former local president of the United Mine Workers of America union.

Also look for Calgary Greenway's Manmeet Bhullar to remain in cabinet, and maybe rise up a notch or two -- after all, he’s seemed like a bit of a comer for a while now, and he jumped onto the Prentice bandwagon even before Prentice was on it!

But after them, who's left? Peter Sandhu? Mike Allen? David Xiao? Neil Brown? No, scratch the last two -- the former plans to run for the federal Conservatives next year and the latter has agreed to step aside so Mr. Prentice can run in a by-election in his Calgary-MacKay-Nose Hill riding.

And Prentice's high-profile celebrity candidates? They won't be around until after the election, and the worse it looks for the Tories, the harder they're going to be to recruit.

Well, as George W. Bush's secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, famously observed: "You go to war with the army you have -- not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time."

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

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