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End of an era: Former Alberta health minister Fred Horne, last of '4H Club,' to quit

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Fred Horne

Former Alberta health minister Fred Horne, the last of the once powerful "4H Club" of Progressive Conservative ministers in key cabinet portfolios, has announced his intention to retire after the next election.

The Edmonton-Rutherford MLA’s announcement yesterday morning followed by hours that of former finance minister Doug Horner, MLA for Spruce Grove-St. Albert, who pulled the plug on provincial politics Thursday. Alert readers will be aware this development was predicted in yesterday's AlbertaPolitics.ca post.

The first of the 4H'ers to go was Calgary-West MLA Ken Hughes, who served as both energy and municipal affairs minister and quit without much fanfare on Sept. 29 last year. Former premier pro tempore Dave Hancock, MLA for Edmonton-Whitemud, departed similarly swiftly on Sept. 12 immediately after Premier Jim Prentice was sworn in as premier.

Horne’s anodyne departure statement thanking the usual suspects gave few hints as to why he picked this moment, or how he felt about the end of his political career. However, it doesn’t require a PhD in political science to see that Premier Prentice is clearing the decks for an early election, likely before what's left of the Opposition Wildrose Party can pick a leader on June 6 to replace the political-cross-dressing Danielle Smith who joined the Prentice PCs with 10 other Wildrosers last month.

Horne did say, "I look forward to supporting Premier Prentice, my colleagues and our Party in the years to come." Forgive me, but one could almost hear the notes of Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree as this was read. Well, Horne, 53, has worked as a health care consultant for large private-sector health companies in the past, and may again someday, so it makes sense for him to exit as gracefully as possible.

All four 4H'ers were closely identified with the catastrophic government of former premier Alison Redford, and three of the four at various times had exhibited an interest in the premier's job themselves -- Horne being the only exception in that regard. As such it may well be the rumours are true and Prentice made it clear to all four that he didn't want them 'round no more, no more.

The premier quickly removed Horne from cabinet as soon as he took over in September 2014. At the time, this was described in the media as a symbolic break with the past.

Horne's departure right on the heels of Horner's should surely lay to rest the preposterous theory floated by a professional political columnist yesterday that Horner might have timed his departure to force the premier to hold a by-election before a general election.

No, it's much more likely Prentice is calling the shots, reasonably enough under the circumstances. Perhaps certain prominent Alberta politicians -- including the four whose last names began with the letter H -- have been instructed to fall on their swords, metaphorically speaking. Be that as it may, the premier clearly wants all candidates nominated and in place in time for an early vote.

Despite having been handed his hat, no one can say Horne does not leave a significant legacy that will not be as easy for Prentice to erase as it is for him to scrub some of Redford's other signature pieces of legislation … like the fixed-election date law that is about to be flushed down the Memory Hole.

Horne's signal accomplishment -- whether intended or not -- was the complete destruction of carefully fabricated story the humongous province-wide public health care agency created in 2008 by premier Ed Stelmach, Alberta Health Services, operated at arm's length from the government.

Horne did this by firing the entire AHS board one day in June 2013 because it refused to obey his demand it break legal contracts with the organization’s senior executives and revoke their salary bonuses, which had become a huge embarrassment to the Redford Government.

Thereafter, it was much harder for the government to pretend it did not directly run AHS, which employs close to 100,000 Albertans, a convenient fairy tale that had served the government well.

Subsequent advice from the government's lawyers persuaded Horne that, notwithstanding the board's dismissal, AHS was going to have to pay the bonuses. His efforts to persuade the executives to forgo the pay for the sake of the province were not particularly successful, with only one of them agreeing to voluntarily return the cash.

Horne replaced the board with a single administrator, former KPMG health care consultant Janet Davidson, at a salary of about $580,000 plus another $64,000 in cash benefits and a car allowance. (By comparison, the prime minister of Canada is nowadays paid a base salary of $327,400.)

Davidson now serves in a slightly different role, as the Deputy Minister of Health, at the same salary, about double what other Alberta DMs are paid. So it is not entirely unreasonable to wonder if Davidson will soon follow her former colleague and boss and return to her Vancouver Island home.

While Horne is said to be an avid debater and debate coach, he was never a natural politician in the manner of Horner or Hancock.

Although as an MLA only since 2008, Horne will not receive the generous transitional-fund payout a veteran MLA and minister like Horner can expect, reported to be above a half a million dollars, he is certain to have a comfortable semi-retirement.

No doubt plum health care consulting assignments in the private sector beckon.

It remains to be seen if any of the loyal 4H'ers decides it is his public duty to write a tell-all book about the Redford years.

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

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