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Unelected and unknown education minister looms as first major blunder of Prentice new Tory Government

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Gordon Dirks

The appointment of Gordon Dirks as unelected minister of education by Premier Jim Prentice on his first day in office has the potential to become the first serious political blunder of Alberta's new Tory Government.

Prentice obviously intended the appointment of Dirks, a former Saskatchewan cabinet minister and Calgary public school trustee, to be a powerful symbol of dramatic change in the troubled 43-year-old Progressive Conservative dynasty he now leads.

If no one knew much about Dirks, aged 67, that was clearly intended to demonstrate Prentice's government is really committed to a different course, and that traditional supporters of many stripes can feel comfortable returning to the once-big PC tent.

But Dirks' association with an evangelical Christian denomination known for both political conservatism and deeply social conservative positions on homosexuality and women's reproductive rights has aroused profound and legitimate concern among a broad range of Albertans.

Moreover, Dirks' association with private Christian educational institutions creates similarly legitimate fears about what his views as education minister may be on public funds for private religious education, including money for groups that hold extremist religious and social views.

This is the point at which the fact he is almost a complete unknown to most Albertans becomes a serious problem for the Prentice Government.

Obviously, just having been associated with a religious educational institution is no guarantee of either conservative or liberal social and economic views. Full disclosure: I taught a course as a sessional for more than a decade in a private Christian university. My role there was entirely compatible with my own religious beliefs. Readers of this blog know that association hardly turned me into a raving market fundamentalist or arch social conservative.

The problem with Dirks for most of us is that we just don't know enough about him to judge what his personal views and likely behaviour in the education portfolio might be. Which, of course, is where Prentice's serious political blunder comes in.

As a result, many people assume the worst. Under the circumstances, this is an entirely reasonable thing to do until Dirks or the government that appointed him can show otherwise.

The limited and unverified information circulating on social media suggests that he does, in fact, hold social conservative views that are far outside the Alberta mainstream.

As a Calgary school trustee, Dirks appeared to observers to have had no problem with anti-choice groups like the Pregnancy Care Centre and Birth Right teaching Career and Life Management courses in public schools.

As a pastor at Calgary's Centre Street Church he played a leadership role in an organization that took strong positions against women's reproductive rights and equality for LGTBQ citizens.

Only Dirks and the government that appointed him can make his actual views on these important issues clear.

In fairness, Dirks met yesterday with representatives of the province's LGBTQ community to try to ease representatives' concerns. But this problem is bigger than one meeting can solve for the government now.

It doesn't help -- and, indeed, raises suspicions -- that the Prentice government's most avid political supporters have launched a hysterical counterattack on people who express such concerns.

In a particularly intemperate rant, Calgary Herald Editorial Page Editor Licia Corbella described Albertans who have indicated reservations about Dirks' still largely undefined views as "anti-Christian bigots."

Corbella's preposterous screed suggests she may have missed it, but in fact there are deep doctrinal differences within Christianity -- one or two of them serious enough for people to have fought wars over not so long ago. Many Christians are just as worried about Dirks' views on reproductive choice, gay rights and education funding as the purported anti-Christian bigots targeted by Corbella's fulminations.

Politically, this suits the Opposition parties well. The NDP has attacked, improving its street credibility with voters opposed to social conservative views. The market fundamentalist Wildrose Party can be expected to sit quietly by, letting the Tories destroy the chances fearful progressive voters can be persuaded one more time to return to the former Natural Governing Party out of fear of the Wildrose Party's supposed social conservatism.

As someone who is now in public life, the only chance Dirks has is to be crystal clear on where he really stands on the right of women to reproductive choice, public funding for religious schools, participation in CALM instruction by anti-choice groups, and full lights for LGBTQ citizens.

Given the buzz in Alberta about his views, there is no way he can fly under the radar on this. When the by-election is scheduled, there is no way voters should let him.

+ + +

Doug Horner barely escapes political 'capital punishment'

Former finance minister Doug Horner has had a brush with capital punishment, Alberta style.

One of Premier Prentice's first acts was to tell the veteran PC minister there was no place for him in the New Tory cabinet. Alas, the long-time PC insider had become a reminder of the many disasters wrought by former premier Alison Redford, whom Horner served with such exemplary loyalty.

In response, Prentice instructed Horner that he must become an ill-defined senior advisor on intramural trade and intergovernmental relations, which is political-speak for "out of sight, out of mind."

At least Horner was spared full-time banishment to the nation's capital on the banks of the Rideau River, as former premier Alison Redford sent defeated front-runner Gary Mar into a comfortable exile in Hong Kong as Alberta's plenipotentiary of petroleum.

It was the unhappy Montrealer Marc Lalonde, prime minister Pierre Trudeau's principal secretary and utility cabinet minister, who first observed that Ottawa is proof Canada continues to have capital punishment.

It is not entirely clear how Horner will replace the current incumbent in the post, an Ottawa resident, from his redoubt in central Alberta's Spruce-Grove-St. Albert riding. One presumes will have to spend plenty of time in the environs of the former Bytown and get there flying steerage in an Air Canada jet with the rest of us poor citizens.

Perhaps, in the absence of a comfortable government aircraft, he can telecommute. His former cabinet colleague Thomas Lukaszuk may be able to advise him on a good cellular data plan.

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

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