Kenney's cabinet shuffle more firecracker than fireworks
Shuffle won't help waning popularity among Alberta voters but it will help him regain control of caucus
This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years.
We were expecting a cabinet shuffle.
Just not this particular shuffle.
There had been speculation for the past two weeks that Premier Jason Kenney was about to reorganize his ministers.
In fact, after the NDP got wind of the whispers it tried to cheekily beat Kenney to the punch by issuing a news release on June 23: "Jason Kenney must shuffle failing ministers out of cabinet."
Among those "failing ministers" were Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Education Minister Adriana LaGrange.
Shandro, for one, had started a war with the Alberta Medical Association last year after tearing up the doctors' master agreement. In response, 98 per cent of AMA members indicated in a vote they had no confidence in the minister.
Likewise, 99 per cent of Alberta Teachers' Association members at a convention this year said they had no confidence in LaGrange.
The two ministers had become such lightning rods they should have been attached to tall buildings.
Politically speaking, shuffling Shandro and LaGrange to new portfolios within cabinet or booting them from cabinet altogether would have made sense. That would have allowed Kenney to hit the reset button on two of his most contentious portfolios.
However, Kenney is keeping his two key ministers in place as a sign of loyalty and defiance.
He is rewarding their faithfulness and defying the critics, especially the NDP, who are baying for blood.
LaGrange will continue to push a draft K-6 curriculum so contentious that 56 of 61 school boards are refusing to pilot it.
After burning bridges with the Alberta Medical Association last year, Shandro is now the guy in charge of rebuilding those bridges this year.
Thus, Thursday's cabinet shuffle announcement was something of an anti-climax.
We were expecting fireworks and instead got a firecracker.
Hitting the reset button
Kenney booted Leela Aheer from her portfolio as minister of culture, multiculturalism and status of women. And he removed Grant Hunter as associate minister of red tape reduction.
Aheer was a competent, confident and unfailingly optimistic minister but made the mistake of openly criticizing Kenney personally for his non-COVID-compliant Sky Palace dinner in June.
Hunter made the mistake of not appearing to be a particularly good minister.
Conversely, Kenney elevated loyalists to cabinet including MLA Ron Orr who during a mini-caucus revolt in May declared Kenney "is the leader God raised up for these times."
Orr is now minister of culture.
Kenney subtracted two ministers but added six more, an unusual example of political mathematics for a politician who champions small government.
But Kenney is trying to keep an unruly caucus in line by making it clear critics will be punished and loyalists rewarded, even if he has to add more seats to the cabinet table.
And then there's UCP MLA Nate Horner, who is now associate minister of rural economic development despite signing a letter in April critical of government pandemic restrictions.
By elevating Horner to cabinet, Kenney is demonstrating political grace while elevating a rural MLA to cabinet to help quell the anti-Kenney sentiment outside the big cities.
It didn't escape Kenney's notice that Horner had criticized government policy, not Kenney himself.
Thursday's cabinet shuffle will indeed help Kenney hit the reset button. But this is not a reset to clear the way for a new direction into the future.
This is Kenney hitting the reset button back to 2019.
By keeping Shandro and LaGrange in place, Kenney is signalling that he wants to return to the good old pre-pandemic days of open war with public sector workers while reworking the education system in a more Conservative image.
This week, after praising nurses for their work during the pandemic, Finance Minister Travis Toews announced that Alberta Health Services wants to roll back nurses' compensation by three per cent.
Not surprisingly, nurses and union leaders are furious and point out the government is asking public sector workers in effect to help subsidize government misspending on items such as the $1.3-billion loss in the Keystone XL pipeline project.
There are rumblings of a province-wide general strike. Just like in 2019.
Kenney's cabinet shuffle won't suddenly boost his waning popularity among Alberta voters but it will help him regain control of his caucus. And for him that's an important step forward – even if he appears to be going backwards.