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Picking a cabinet is never an easy job -- it'll be tougher, with higher stakes, for Rachel Notley

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The Original NDP 4: Deron Bilous, Brian Mason, David Eggen & Rachel Notley

If the transition to Rachel Notley’s New Democratic Party government from Jim Prentice's Progressive Conservative government seems to be taking forever, presumably that's because for the first time in 44 years it really is a transition.

In other words, there's more transitioning than has been normal around here to do -- enough, it could be argued, to occupy every waking moment of an entire four-year government term.

Meanwhile, idle hands are the devil's workshop, and I'm starting to hear a low buzz of complaint about how long this is taking from ordinary Albertans who normally don’t pay a lot of attention to politics. Mostly it's phrased positively, as in, "I sure wish Rachel would announce her cabinet.' That's a sign, though, that the NDP needs to get on with it.

While we wait, I'm going to speculate a bit about Notley's first cabinet, leastways who might be in it, if not what they'd be doing there.

There's been surprisingly little of this among the professional political puditocracy of Alberta, probably for a couple of reasons. After 44 years of PC governments, often with NDP caucuses so small they could meet in a phone booth, journalists haven't paid as much attention to the NDP as it turns out they ought to have. Moreover, Notley has been running a tight ship on her transition team -- so far, no leaks! So speculation in such circumstances is an activity only for the brave … or the extremely foolhardy.

Needless to say, picking a cabinet is supremely important because in our Westminster system of "responsible government" -- by which I mean, the ministry is responsible to the Legislature -- the cabinet has become the dominant institution.

To start the process, the premier designate needs to engage in the usual cabinet-building exercise of ensuring all geographic parts of the province can claim some representation -- not to mention most of the larger demographic categories. This requirement inevitably means some very good people get left off the list, for the first rodeo anyway. In this case, that probably means some deserving MLAs from Edmonton -- home to almost half the NDP caucus -- won't get picked. Some weaker performers with a good address may slip in, too.

In addition, Notley faces some unique challenges in this task. Her party has spent a long time wandering in the Wilderness -- about 40 years, as a matter of literal fact -- and the loyalty of those die-hard Dippers who followed the pillar of orange fire throughout must be recognized. Her cabinet choices also need to acknowledge the role the trade union movement played standing by the party in its darkest days -- although she does not lack for union members in her caucus. And having knocked off a prominent Tory incumbent won’t hurt a cabinet candidate's chances either.

Notley has set herself a slightly tougher task than some premiers face by emphasizing the need to find a balance of gender, age and other aspects of diversity that reflects the social reality of the province. She must work, practically speaking, with the people she has in her caucus.

And as has been constantly pointed out already by her nascent opposition, she must also draw from an inexperienced caucus -- although, as argued here yesterday, that's less of a problem for the NDP than her opponents are trying to make it appear. But it does mean that the other three veterans of the Legislature in her caucus -- former leader Brian Mason, former leadership candidate David Eggen and Deron Bilous are all likely to be needed on her front bench.

Size also matters in cabinets, and here Notley must deal with one of the harmful legacies left behind by the domination of Canada's provincial and federal conservative governments by market fundamentalist extremists since the early 2000s.

Since this philosophy is based in the wrongheaded idea that all government is bad, it has pushed the notion that the right size for a cabinet is small. Too small, it is said here. This has led to a lot deceptive foolishness to allow governments claim their cabinets are smaller than they really are by created grades of minister.

Inevitably, though, this will put some pressure on Notley to keep her cabinet small or face screams from the right that she is making government too complex and expensive -- neither of which actually follows from having larger cabinet, as the size and complexity of Alberta's economy suggests we need.

But it's possible Notley will send a message by making her cabinet smaller than Prentice’s 19 -- but not too much smaller.

There's also a philosophical dispute in cabinet making about whether ministers should come from the same field as their portfolio (a physician as health minister, for example) or whether they should not. There are strong arguments in favour of both points of view.

Regardless, there's a lot hanging on this particular cabinet. An NDP government in traditionally conservative Alberta is going to face a determined and resentful opposition. Notley knows she had better get it right, or the price could be an expensive one.

For what it is worth, which is probably not that much, here, in alphabetical order, not order of likelihood, if my first guess for an 18-member cabinet:

Premier Rachel Notley, 51, Edmonton-Strathcona, MLA, lawyer

Deron Bilous, 39, Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview, MLA, school teacher
Joe Ceci, 57, Calgary-Fort, non-profit manager, former city councillor
David Eggen, 52, Edmonton-Calder, MLA, school teacher
Kathleen Ganley, 36, Calgary-Buffalo, lawyer
Sarah Hoffman, 34, Edmonton-Glenora, public school trustee
Rod Loyola, 41, Edmonton-Ellerslie, union president, former leadership candidate
Robyn Luff, 34, Calgary-East, math teacher*
Brian Mason, 61, Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood, MLA, bus driver
Margaret McCuaig-Boyd, 62, Dunvegan-Central Peace-Notley, former college VP
Stephanie McLean, 28, Calgary-Varsity, lawyer
Barb Miller, 56, Red Deer South, Red Deer South, grocery cashier, union official
Shannon Phillips, 39, Lethbridge-West, Alberta Federation of Labour policy analyst
Marie Renaud, 50, St. Albert, non-profit executive director
Irfan Sabir, 37, Calgary-McCall, lawyer
Marlin Schmidt, 36, Edmonton-Gold Bar, government hydrogeologist
David Shepherd, 41, Edmonton-Centre, musician, administrator
Bob Turner, 66, Edmonton-Whitemud, cancer physician

This covers the gender balance, at least, and makes a stab at regional balance. It also means a lot of qualified people will have to go without cabinet posts -- although a Speaker must be found, and a party Whip, and a some committee chairs…

I'm not promising you this will be the cabinet, of course. I am saying it's a plausible cabinet. We'll see soon enough!

* A math teacher would be an asset to any cabinet, because, as all Albertans now know, math is hard.

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

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