MP's cabinet appointment a play for Liberals to shore up Alberta support, say experts

Edmonton MP Amarjeet Sohi was appointed to the role of federal Natural Resources minister Wednesday — a move experts describe as an attempt by the Liberals to gain, or at least hang on to, Alberta seats in the next election.

Putting the pipeline portfolio in Alberta 'extremely important optically,' says policy analyst

Amarjeet Sohi has been appointed to the role of Natural Resources minister. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

Edmonton MP Amarjeet Sohi was appointed to the role of federal Natural Resources minister Wednesday — a move experts describe as an attempt by the Liberals to gain, or at least hang on to, Alberta seats in the next election.

"It's extremely important optically. I think it's an indication in spite of the fact they have uphill fighting in Alberta, they're not just giving up on us. They're wanting to include us in a number of different ways by doing that," said Lori Williams, an associate professor of policy studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

Sohi will be taking over the role from Jim Carr, leaving an Albertan in charge of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

"They want to retain and maybe even grow seats despite the odds," said Williams. "They're trying to indicate Alberta is a very important player in this portfolio."

Next possible choice to a Calgarian

Williams described Sohi as a strong minister with a good record, and most importantly — no baggage. 

In 2015, Calgarians elected two Liberals for the first time since 1968. Now, Darshan Kang is sitting as an Independent and Kent Hehr is out of cabinet, after both faced allegations of sexual harassment — essentially erasing those historic gains.

"The problem is their two MPs from Calgary have both had problems on sexual harassment, #MeToo issues so they've run out of choices from the Calgary area," said University of Calgary political scientist, and one time chief of staff to former prime minister Stephen Harper, Ian Brodie, who described Sohi's appointment as the next best thing to putting a Calgarian in charge of the pipeline project. 

The federal government agreed to buy the Alberta-to-British-Columbia line this spring for $4.5 billion from Kinder Morgan. Premier Rachel Notley said Alberta would make up to $2 billion available, if necessary, to keep the project going.

"[Prime Minister Justin Trudeau] can't make up for his hole in Calgary by reaching into the Senate and making a Calgary Senator the minister of Natural Resources, so he's come to the next nearest possible choice."

'A defensive effort'

Brodie said the Trudeau government's sales pitch promising to get pipelines built, as long as Albertans pay the carbon tax, isn't going to cut it anymore.

"I think skepticism about whether this sales job the Liberals did in the last election, that we can build your pipeline for you as long as you're willing to pay the carbon tax, I think that's plainly proven not to be the case … that's not a credible sales job in the Calgary area anymore."

Wednesday's cabinet shuffle comes one year before the next federal election, and Brodie said the Liberals are likely looking at pipelines as a "weak point" they'll need to shore up. 

"This is really a defensive effort now. I don't think they think they can keep those two seats in Calgary. But they've got to keep those seats in Edmonton," said Brodie.

Sohi was asked on The Calgary Eyeopener Thursday morning if his appointment was an attempt for the Liberals to build public support in Alberta, but he said he sees it as more of a national role as natural resources are more than just oil and gas.

"I am a minister responsible for the entire country when it comes to natural resources.… I feel deeply honoured and privileged that I have been given this opportunity by the prime minister and we will continue to focus on growing the economy in Canada, creating jobs for all Canadians and making sure we help families succeed and helping communities succeed," Sohi said. 

With files from Helen Pike, CBC Edmonton, The Calgary Eyeopener