A photo of Alberta Premier Danielle Smith.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith. Credit: Dave Cournoyer / Flickr

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith named her cabinet Friday. 

It is absurdly large. 

Premier Smith named 37 cabinet members – 24 full ministers with portfolios, two ministers without portfolio, and 11 parliamentary secretaries.

With her own presumably soon-to-be-elected self, that brings the total to 38. 

By contrast, there were 12 ministers in Rachel Notley’s first NDP cabinet. Notley later added six more.

Recent first cabinets formed by Progressive Conservative premiers numbered 19 members under Ed Stelmach, 21 for Alison Redford (who was criticized by Smith’s Wildrose Party for the increase), and 21 for Jim Prentice.

Jason Kenney, the first United Conservative Party (UCP) premier had a first cabinet of 23. 

So if you thought Smith was the sort of conservative who believes in small government, you might want to reconsider that claim, especially since the UCP Caucus isn’t exactly a deep pool of talent. 

However, Smith obviously had a bigger priority than keeping her government lean. That is, keeping her friends close and her enemies closer. Most of them, anyway. 

She must keep the United Conservatives united or she risks facing a fate like that of Liz Truss, so recently prime minister of the United Kingdom for 45 days, beating even the record of Charles Tupper, prime minister of Canada for 69 days in 1896.

Like Truss, if worse came to worst, Ms. Smith might find the man she replaced waiting in the wings to replace her! So we can empathize with her political predicament even if we are appalled by her agenda. 

To borrow an American political metaphor, faced with risk of draining the swamp to get rid of the alligators, Smith decided to flood it to keep them content. 

That was not the only expected change to cabinet that didn’t materialize quite as promised. 

Before Friday’s announcement, Smith had made it sound as if her new cabinet would dominated by rural MLAs, part of her strategy to win even if she loses by hanging onto the UCP’s loyal rural heartland at all costs. 

In the event, however, there were 15 ministers and parliamentary secretaries with Calgary addresses. That compared to 13 ministers and parliamentary secretaries from rural ridings.

In addition, there are another eight ministers and parliamentary secretaries from what I would describe as “rurban” electoral districts – nine if you assume Smith will win her seat in Brooks-Medicine Hat in the by-election set for Novovember 8. 

The caveat here is that not everyone would necessarily agree with the way I divvied up rural and mixed rural-urban ridings, but the general pattern still shows a cabinet that tilts rural – as Conservative cabinets often do in Alberta – but still has lots of representation from Calgary. 

So, despite her brave country talk, it looks as if Smith chose to be more mindful of her need to win some Calgary ridings than her desire to abandon Alberta’s cities to their apparently unapologetic wokeness. 

In the end, she shuffled the deck chairs on the Titanic a little, but mainly added extra chairs so Alberta’s new political elite would have good seats from which to watch the ship go down.

Smith left a number of Kenney’s key ministers in place: Travis Toews, the once and future finance minister and her chief competitor in the race to lead the UCP, Justice Minister Tyler Shandro, Health Minister Jason Copping, Education Minister Adrianna LaGrange, and Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides will all hang onto their previous jobs.

UCP Caucus members who openly supported Ms. Smith during the leadership race were rewarded: Kaycee Madu, formerly the labour minister and the UCP’s only Edmonton MLA, and Lethbridge-East MLA Nathan Neudorf, were both named deputy premier. Airdrie-Cochrane MLA Peter Guthrie, hitherto considered a lightweight, was given the important Energy portfolio. Devin Dreeshen, who left cabinet after allegations of office drinking and tolerance of sexual harassment a year ago, is back as minister of transportation. Devinder Toor, MLA for Calgary-Falconridge, found a spot as a Parliamentary secretary for multculturalism. 

As for Smith’s leadership challengers, only Leela Aheer failed to find a place in cabinet. 

If readers have a burning desire to learn who else ended up doing what, the full list can be found in the government’s press release

Of course, where there are winners, there must be some losers, and the biggest loser was probably Kenney loyalist and harsh Smith critic Jason Nixon, who served under Mr. Kenney as environment minister, finance minister and UCP House Leader. 

Nixon was booted to the back benches. (His brother Jeremy, a Calgary MLA, joins cabinet as seniors, community and social services minister.) Also dumped from cabinet: Ric McIver (punished for seeking federal help with the Coutts blockade?), Prassad Panda, Whitley Issik, and Ron Orr. 

Other important trends revealed in Smith’s first cabinet included seriously declining interest in gender balance in the political calculations made by the UCP. 

Only four women hold portfolios in Smith’s cabinet – five if you count the premier herself. Three more will serve as Parliamentary secretaries. 

This is a striking difference from Notley’s thoughtfully balanced cabinets. 

In addition, status of women no longer rates a full cabinet portfolio under Smith’s leadership.

There was also some grumbling that the Labour Ministry has disappeared, along with its name. 

This is highly unlikely, however, as someone will still have to be responsible for the administration of the provincial labour, employment standards and occupational health and safety codes.

No doubt we will discover next week whether the Ministry of Jobs, Economy and Northern Development (former leadership contender Brian Jean’s new perch) or the silly sounding Ministry of Skilled Trades and Professions (Madu’s portfolio) is responsible. 

It is said here that a lack of focus on labour relations by a government like Smith’s is not necessarily a bad thing.

Smith also seemed not to have much time for mainstream media Friday, posting the list of cabinet ministers without much notice or any opportunity to ask questions, then heading off for a congenial livestreamed chat with former Wildrose and UCP MLA Derek Fildebrandt, who nowadays operates a right-wing online news and propaganda site. 

“I don’t want to have a scientific committee advising me that isn’t prepared to look at therapeutic options in the middle of a pandemic,” she told Fildebrabndt, among other startling things. (Presumably she had veterinary de-worming paste in mind.)

The clear message to mainstream reporters from the former right-wing talk radio host: You don’t matter anymore. 

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...