January fifteenth 2010, Premier Stelmach did some light shuffling to his cabinet. The opposition has come up with many witty phrases remarking how this shuffle was little more than a last ditch attempt to appease right wing Progressive Conservatives to keep the PCs strangle hold on the Alberta Legislature, and while this might be true there is something to be said about the changes that were made.
Stelmach changed two visible and divisive portfolios, putting former Sustainable Resource Development Minister Ted Morton into the ministry of Finance and Enterprise and placing Gene Zwozdesky – MLA for Edmonton-Mill Creek – into the ministry of Health and Wellness. Other substantial changes included moving Iris Evans, the minister who bore the brunt of the fiscal downturn out of the Finance portfolio and into International and Intergovernmental relations, keeping Doug Horner in the Advanced Education and Technology portfolio, and moving Ron Liepert from Health and Wellness to Energy.
The shuffle was a clear shift to the right, placing some of the most vocal “fiscal conservatives,” including rookie MLA Jonathon Denis, who is a member of the ‘fiscal four’ into cabinet as Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs. Considering the province’s pledge to end homelessness by 2019, Denis has quite the challenge in front of him. A minister from Calgary, his previous right wing affiliation has come into play when meeting with student groups, including his defense of the pro-life club in last year’s University of Calgary vs. pro-life club situation. Denis is not the only conservative minister to secure an influential spot in cabinet. Every top-level position has gone to an MLA who has supported fiscally and/or socially conservative policies within the Progressive Conservative party, not to mention exhibiting extreme party loyalty.
Truthfully, it’s a fairly boring cabinet shuffle, giving truth to the phrase “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Fiscally, Morton in cabinet is every true progressive’s nightmare come true. Morton has been vocally in favour of privatization of services, both in his education and political life, as well as in his alliance with the University of Calgary’s “Calgary School” and the now-famous Friends of Science. All told, this does not bode well for social services and those that support them in Alberta. These moves hit especially hard in light of the recent choice to make substantial cuts to disability funding in Alberta. Moving Morton to Finance also gives what might be viewed as a public blessing from Stelmach and could denote a possible incoming PC leader, an “anointed one” to replace Stelmach when he moves on.
Moving Ron Liepert out of Health and Wellness was a politically sound decision, and will likely buy some time for the Alberta government to do some work to fix up this portfolio, damaged by the administration of the H1N1 vaccine last fall. Liepert’s charm will lend itself better to the Energy portfolio, where his efforts to schmooze will go over better with multi national oil executives than it did with out of work nurses and senior care officials.
The somewhat new faces in cabinet are also Calgary and rural centric, likely in response to the threat the Wildrose Alliance poses to taking Calgary and rural seats from the PCs. This shuffle is more in response to an upstart party with one legitimately elected member in the legislature, two floor crossers, and a newly elected leader who has yet to win a seat.
The opposition has yet to take advantage of the shift to the right in Stelmach’s cabinet, nor have they capitalized on the PCs’ rewarding of party loyalists. Instead, they have shifted their attention to criticizing the Wildrose Alliance, and speculating on the threat that they pose to the PCs. It is disappointing to see Alberta’s Official Opposition bow to a party that has yet to even achieve official party status.
This shuffle does little to spell change for Alberta’s legislature and until the next provincial election, I highly doubt too much will change in the way of Alberta’s political workings. The shift to the right is not favourable in light of tight fiscal choices and a seeming de-prioritization of public services but in reality the change is little and party loyalists are party loyalists, regardless of the seats they occupy.