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It was an easy mistake to make: slip quietly out of the House of Commons before things got ugly, one way or another, for a nice sinecure as Alberta's "trade representative" in Washington, D.C.
Rob Merrifield -- who was Conservative MP for the Yellowhead riding west of Edmonton and Minister of State for Transport in Stephen Harper's cabinet when he pulled the plug on federal politics a year ago this week -- wasn't the only one to make the mistake of assuming the Tories were forever when his former cabinet colleague Jim Prentice picked up the phone in the premier's office and offered him the prestigious job.
Still, the terse 150-word announcement Friday from Premier Rachel Notley that the former school trustee and hospital board member from Whitecourt was on his way out the door -- Nice seeing you 'round! Here’s your hat! -- must've stung for a couple of reasons just the same.
There was nary a word about the previous government's now-moribund attempt to bully Barack Obama into approving the Keystone XL Pipeline, which dominated the headlines as supposedly Merrifield's key assignment when he was appointed on Sept. 17, 2014. And with a Republican-dominated Congress, that was supposed to be easy. Well, it turns out they call the president of the United States The Most Powerful Man on Earth for a reason!
Between the lines, it was clear the NDP government didn't feel that being a friend and erstwhile cabinet-mate of Prentice was really grounds for holding a position that is expensive, important and diplomatic in nature if not constitutionality.
"I would like to sincerely thank Rob Merrifield for all of his efforts advancing Alberta's economic and policy interests with our largest trading partner -- notably his recent work on the Country of Origin Labelling file," said Notley. (Emphasis added.)
"This change will allow the government time to consider a new direction for the office, including the option of appointing a representative with a background as a professional diplomat," she concluded. As my children would observe: Burn!
Translation: You weren't qualified for the job. Congressional liaison and the chair of the international trade committee isn't a diplomatic background, no matter what the fawning media stories said last year. And perhaps your 2013 remark in the House that sexual harassment complaints by 330 female RCMP officers were "not a gender issue" didn't exactly cement your reputation for diplomacy!
However, not everyone was overwhelmed by the appointment at the time, either. Danielle Smith, who was then leader of the Opposition, commented: "Three days into the job, Mr. Prentice is already breaking key promises from his election campaign, awarding his closest friends and political insiders into high-level positions in the Alberta government without even opening a competitive application process." Of course, in fairness, three months later, she may have seen things differently. Still, that seemed like a fair assessment to me at the time.
Merrifield's work is officially done at the end of the month. His contract, which had three more years to run, includes no provisions for severance -- and it will be interesting to see if any of his formerly powerful Conservative friends, who normally quail at the thought of public employees being paid severance, will complain about this particular case. Interim Conservative Leader Ric McIver protested the dismissal, but his efforts sounded decidedly half-hearted.
Citizens concerned about Merrifield's financial welfare without his $243,000 salary need not worry. At 61 with 14 years' experience in the House of Commons, he is entitled to a generous pension -- even if this means he will start collecting it a little sooner than he had expected. He had promised to donate it to charity as long as he was earning a salary paid by the people of Alberta.
Former Alberta cabinet ministers Murray Smith and Gary Mar, also once coruscating lights in the Tory firmament, held the post of Washington "envoy" before Merrifield.
"Details on a replacement for the position will be coming shortly," said the release. "With Alberta's exports to the U.S. totalling $109.6 billion last year, strong relations with the U.S. will play an important role in growing and diversifying Alberta's economy."
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.
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