Judging from the reaction on social media, not a lot of Albertans believed Jobs, Economy and Innovation Minister Doug Schweitzer when he told a news reporter last week it wasn’t his decision in February to fire his former chief of staff, Ariella Kimmel.
After the story broke last Thursday that Kimmel had filed a lawsuit claiming she was unjustly fired for complaining about sexual harassment in a workplace where open drinking and abusive behaviour were tolerated, Schweitzer told reporters he wasn’t aware of her allegations.
“You know what? A lot of the information that came out in the media yesterday was news to me,” Schweitzer said, raising eyebrows all around the province. “That being said, you know, Ariella Kimmel is an excellent staffer, I’ve been a reference for her after she, you know, departed from the legislature, and I’d still be a reference for her today.”
He went on to say: “Those decisions weren’t mine to make. That being said, I really enjoyed working with her, she’s an excellent staffer, and … I’d work with her again.”
In an edited recording circulating on social media, Schweitzer also made a rather pro forma denunciation of sexual harassment in the workplace.
In an interview with CTV, Schweitzer admitted he’d heard “rumblings third- and fourth-hand” about sexual harassment in the premier’s office — but indicated Kimmel hadn’t come to him about what she was experiencing.
If Schweitzer thought that would be the end of the matter, he was bound to be disappointed.
The instant reaction suggested the minister was almost universally disbelieved.
That’s weird, former Progressive Conservative deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk tweeted. A cabinet minister “didn’t know that his chief of staff was sexually harassed and had no idea who fired her and why”?
“Chiefs of staff report only to the minister and shadow his every step,” Lukaszuk went on. “They are his confidants. Someone is lying here…”
Who gets to be the ministerial chief of staff, Lukaszuk told me, “is not a position that can be picked for a minister.”
So if Schweitzer is claiming steps were being taken to fire his chief of staff, “the minister is either lying, is totally incompetent, or the chief of staff knew that she could not trust him either,” he said.
Still, while this may make me the only person in Alberta who is inclined to believe Schweitzer, it can’t be ruled out he wasn’t told what was happening. This isn’t a compliment, of course.
It’s necessary to pause here and remind ourselves that, on paper, the way ministerial chiefs of staff and press secretaries are hired, and much less frequently fired, has been the same under Alberta’s Progressive Conservative, New Democratic Party and UCP governments.
That is, under all three parties these political appointees are all technically employees of the premier’s office, normally reporting to both the premier’s chief of staff and the minister they serve.
That said, different governments have different styles of business.
According to Lukaszuk, who entered cabinet under premier Ed Stelmach and remained there throughout Alison Redford’s premiership, “under the PCs, each minister assembled their own team.” No matter who signed the contract, he said, chiefs of staff were selected by the minister.
This was not necessarily the case under the NDP, which took a more centralized approach to these important appointments under premier Rachel Notley’s first chief of staff, Brian Topp. Nor did NDP chiefs of staff necessarily go everywhere their minister went as Lukaszuk described. More likely, they would remain in Edmonton to run the office.
As for Premier Kenney’s office, judging from what happened to Kimmel and what Schweitzer has to say about it, all decisions appear to be made in the premier’s office with little or no input from ministers. Whether they are made by the premier’s chief of staff, or by Kenney himself, is open to debate. Given Premier Kenney’s notoriety as a micromanager, the latter is not inconceivable.
Since Schweitzer was demoted by Kenney from the important justice portfolio to his current largely symbolic ministry in August 2020, he’s clearly not been part of the premier’s inner clique, so it is entirely believable he was left right out of the loop.
While working relationships between NDP ministers and their chiefs of staff may not typically have been as close as Lukaszuk describes, if rumours were flying around of sexual harassment, office drinking and other shenanigans, it’s a pretty bad sign if a minister didn’t connect the dots, or think to ask what was going on.
“If he didn’t know, then he’s a pariah with respect to the premier and his office, which may be possible,” said one well-placed former Notley government insider. If he didn’t ask questions when he learned his chief of staff was being fired, said another, “what kind of a minister was he, anyway?”
Regardless, surely it’s inconceivable that someone from the premier’s office didn’t have a quiet chat with Schweitzer when it was decided Kimmel had to go?
Or is it? With the level of competence displayed by the premier’s office these days, nothing should surprise us.
If the premier’s staff had been on the ball, surely they would have settled quietly with Kimmel, instead of allowing the cabinet’s dirty laundry to be aired in public.
What little we know about how this mess unfolded certainly doesn’t make Schweitzer look like a credible candidate to replace Kenney, if that’s what he hopes to do in the event the premier is persuaded to take a walk in the snow — which is bound to start falling any day now.