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Alberta Premier Smith facing challenges, smaller roster, in naming new cabinet

EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is to name her new cabinet Friday, with a lot of jobs to fill, fewer people to fill them and a conspicuous urban-rural divide to bridge.

“This is almost like a new government in the sense that they don’t have established people continuing in what most people would list as the key portfolios for a provincial government,” political scientist Lori Williams said Wednesday.

“The government really does have a chance to set the re-set button.

“A lot of people are struggling (accessing) health care. In spite of the fact the government’s got lots of money, there’s more and more information coming out that Albertans are really struggling financially. It’s not going to be a cakewalk, for sure.”

This is the second cabinet for Smith, who is coming off her United Conservatives’ general election win on May 29.

The UCP has a workable, but sharply curtailed, 49-seat caucus in the 87-seat legislature.

Technically, it has 48 as the future of Lacombe-Ponoka MLA Jennifer Johnson is unsettled. 

Smith said last month Johnson won’t sit in caucus after a 2022 recording surfaced in which Johnson is heard comparing transgender students to feces. Johnson has apologized and Smith has said she believes in second chances.

The UCP was shut out by the NDP in Edmonton and now has just 12 of 26 seats in its traditional urban base in Calgary. The NDP overall will have 38 members across the aisle in Opposition .

Political analyst Trevor Harrison said the challenge for Smith is to bridge that urban-rural divide and then regain lost ground.

“It’s going to be a fine balancing act,” Harrison, with the University of Lethbridge, said in an interview Wednesday.

“She is going to have to find at least enough people who look like they have street cred with the cities and at the same time, she also has to appeal to a lot of her rural folks, and where do you put them in (cabinet)?”

The UCP has seen a brain drain of talent and cabinet experience, either through retirements or election losses. There are vacancies in crucial portfolios of Health, Finance, Justice, Environment, Social Services and Mental Health and Addiction.

Cabinet heavyweights Travis Toews and Sonya Savage did not run again. Jason Copping (Health) and Tyler Shandro (Justice) lost in their Calgary ridings, as did deputy premier Kaycee Madu in Edmonton.

There are only 10 women (11 if Johnson returns) in caucus, four of whom (Smith, Adriana LaGrange, Rebecca Schulz, and Rajan Sawhney) have past cabinet experience.

Smith’s first cabinet after she won the UCP leadership to replace Jason Kenney as party leader and premier last October had 27 ministers — including the whip and government house leader.

Harrison said one key job will be justice minister. That job traditionally goes to a lawyer but there have been exceptions, such as in the late 1930s in Alberta.

Smith has three lawyers to choose from — Mickey Amery, Brian Jean and Jason Stephan. Mike Ellis, a former Calgary police officer with almost a decade in the legislature including service as Smith’s public safety minister, is viewed as a strong possibility.

There has been considerable turnover since Kenney’s original cabinet sworn in on April 30, 2019. The executive table was reset by shifting priorities, internecine political feuds and a fractious leadership race.

The next justice minister will be the fifth in the last four years. Schulz is currently the UCP’s fourth municipal affairs minister.

There have been two health ministers, three infrastructure ministers, three social services ministers, three culture ministers, and three children’s services ministers.

Only three have remained in the same portfolio: Demetrios Nicolaides (Advanced Education), Adriana LaGrange (Education) and Rick Wilson (Indigenous Relations).

The portfolios themselves — except for core services such as Energy, Finance, Health, Infrastructure and Justice — have been put through a blender.

Portfolios such as Economic Development, Trade, Tourism, Jobs, Seniors, Electricity, Agriculture, Forestry, Natural Gas, Parks, Housing, Multiculturalism, Red Tape Reduction, Innovation, and Labour have been switched out, rearranged, dropped, or welded to other titles.

Under Smith last fall, some titles were resurrected and new ones added: Economic Corridors, Protected Areas, Skilled Trades, Professions, Irrigation, Public Safety, Emergency Services, Technology, Utilities and Affordability.

The original Economic Development portfolio was eventually dumped and replaced in part by Rural Economic Development, which was later dumped and replaced in part by the current Northern Development title under Brian Jean.

In four years, the Status of Women portfolio has moved from full cabinet status, to associate minister status to its current non-cabinet rank of parliamentary secretary.

Regardless of the arrangement, Harrison said the goal is to position Alberta for the future.

“Like it or not, the economy is changing and a lot of those jobs that we’ve relied on are being automated out,” Harrison said.

“How do you prepare the workforce for the economy of future? That will be a challenge.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2023.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press


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