Saturday, January 16, 2010

Do The (underwhelming cabinet) Shuffle!

Nation, a little over 24 hours ago the new provincial cabinet for the Government of Alberta was sworn-in.

As I look up and down the list, I see some positive signs that things are moving in the right direction.

Firstly, the elephant in the room is Ted Morton. He'll be hanging his shingle as the Minister of Finance and Enterprise - and I think this is a good thing. It's been suggested that the REAL power over provincial coffers lays with the President of the Treasury Board, Lloyd Snelgrove, and that Morton's role will be to take the slings and arrows associated with the budget, and to collect revenues to hand over to the Treasury Board and let THEM decide what to do with the money.

The reality, though, is quite different. Morton may be moving into a position that had relatively little influence over the past few years, however he brings with him to this new job one thing that the previous minister lacked: Political cachet. Ted Morton is listed as third in the line of precedence, behind only the Premier and Deputy Premier. This means that if Ed and Doug are out of town during QP, questions put to the "Premier of Alberta" will be answered by the Honourable Ted Morton. Morton also carries with him the implicit title of "heir apparent", should Ed decide at some point that he's had enough of being the whipping boy for every special interest and political activist group in the province. So when Ted speaks, expect others around the table to listen very carefully.

Another good step in the shuffle was the move of Ron Liepert to Energy. The job of Minister of Health and Wellness is one of the most thankless jobs on the planet, and Liepert was vilified at every turn by anyone who had a distant relative in nursing, or who had to wait more than 30 minutes to see an E.R. doctor about a headache - but overall, Liepert did a decent job at Health. He was given a mandate by the Premier to seek out inefficiencies, and he did just that. The regional health authorities, who were spending millions of taxpayer dollars to hire governmental relations firms to lobby the government for more taxpayer money (if that seems ridiculous as you read it, it's because it IS ridiculous) were disbanded, in favour of a central board that could focus more money on patient care rather than administration. Liepert began the long and thankless task of trying to figure out how we, as a province, can clean up the money pit that our health system has become: No one spends more to get less than we do. The logical step is to expect to pay less, expect to get more, or both. And let's not forget that underneath the gruff exterior, Liepert showed moments of deep compassion, without the media around to play to.

Ron Liepert will bring a new vitality and feeling of movement to his new portfolio - something much needed these days. The competitiveness review - which doesn't exclusively deal with energy, by the way - will give Liepert a chance to "reboot" the royalty structure, and perform CPR on the Golden Goose. He's been told he can set up an office here in Calgary, which is shocking only in that it hadn't already been done previously... and, if he does his job well, then we can expect not only to see oil money flowing back into the provincial coffers, but also into the PC party once again.

The addition of notorious Red Tory Jonathan Denis to the cabinet is also a big, positive step. Adding a young voice to the mix may give cabinet some perspective that they didn't have before, and Denis has shown himself to be an asset to the party in Calgary, most notably in being the party's point-man on the recent defections and as "Buddy MLA" for the PC Party in Calgary-Currie, where Egmont constituent Dave Taylor sits as the MLA for the Liberals. Denis is a well-known fiscal conservative, and I predict he'll have little trouble keeping his own ministry's finances in order - and these days, with a $2 Billion deficit to kill, every ministry led by an able minister is one less thing to worry about.

That's the GOOD news.

The BAD news, I can only start with one possible criticism:

WHY on EARTH do we still have 24 Cabinet Ministers? In a time of economic uncertainty, when the government is spending $2 Billion more of our money than it's taking in, why do we need 24 full Cabinet Ministers, plus 11 Parliamentary assistants, giving political direction to the bureaucracy that actually runs the departments of government?

Ministries can, and SHOULD, be combined to limit waste and control spending. A case in point is the ministry in which I work, the ministry of Tourism, Parks and Recreation: This could have been 2 separate ministries: The ministry of Parks, and the ministry of Tourism. The 2 are combined, though, under a single minister (in this case, Cindy Ady), who then gives political direction to Deputy Ministers and Assistant Deputy Ministers, who actually run the various functions of TPR. This is a good, responsible use of taxpayer dollars, as by eliminating the need for an Executive Assistant for the Minister of Tourism, eliminating the cost of an office and staff for that same minister, eliminating a separate travel budget, and car allowance, and of course the extra $64,000 per year in pay that "MLA Smith" gets paid to be "Minister Smith", you're saving the taxpayers of Alberta a sizable amount. This could have, and SHOULD have, been done across the board, to several other ministries. And the kicker is, to do so would not have affected front-line service levels one iota.

Of course, the reality is that for every chair you take away from the cabinet table, you have one fewer riding full of voters who feel that they're "special", and will therefore reward your party with another seat come election time... cabinet seats are often handed out based on political considerations, rather than on the basis of merit. Instead of "who is the best person for this job?", the question asked is "who can I give this job to that would benefit us the most in the next election?" - and, at that point, we taxpayers are denied the chance to see people like Doug Griffiths - one of the most popular, able, and loyal MLA's in caucus - run government ministries, based on the fact that "we've already got too many rural males in cabinet" - which is ridiculous.

There are a few other questionable moves in this shuffle, including the move of a "lame duck" minister who won't be running again to the department responsible for the huge and long-term task of instituting the Land Use Framework. The leftist blogosphere is crying foul about the failure to add any new female ministers, but I go back to my point above: If you're adding women to cabinet just so you can say "I added women to cabinet", without any thought as to whether or not the people you're adding are capable of the job, then you're playing politics when you should be governing.

Overall, for me, the biggest disappointment here was the number of familiar faces who stuck around. Now, don't get me wrong: I think a lot of these cabinet ministers have proven themselves capable or running ministries. Many of them, however, have NOT done so, and the fact that they remain in cabinet would be mind-boggling, if not for the obvious reasons of political advantage and loyalty to/from the Premier.

This team has NOT done well since 2008. They clearly have had a losing record since then. And if you've got a hockey team of 23 players, and the coach (Ed) isn't going anywhere, then you've got to make some big moves to turn things around.

They traded 3 underperforming players for 3 who might be able to make some noise - but when you're getting your butt kicked repeatedly (a scenario which, as an Oilers fan, I'm quite familiar with), unless you're adding players of a superstar calibre, you're not likely to affect too much other than team chemistry with a 3-player move. This shuffle was a chance to make a dramatic impact on the public perception of this government as stagnant and rudderless, and show that the message of change so clearly articulated by the voters of Calgary-Glenmore had been received loud and clear. Instead, we got minor tinkering, with the majority of the faces, voices and skill-sets around the cabinet table remaining the same. It's a big disappointment to people within the party, and I suspect it is just as big a disappointment to the people of Alberta - excepting, of course, the opposition parties, who are in their glory.

I expect that the biggest single issue for this government going forward is going to continue to be communications - even with the changes announced to the inner circle of the Premier's Office, we've already had a trademark communications blunder, with freshly-minted Energy Minister Ron Liepert saying something might happen, only be "corrected" by the Premier, via the media, that it was not, in fact, going to happen. The government of Alberta was also NOT going to be donating to Haitian relief efforts, and then they were. At the end of the day, we Albertans have no idea what is actually correct, because we've got lots of noise, but no clarity. So, either people in and around the Premier's Office are having a hard time adjusting to the changes, and things will eventually get better, or they won't get better - which is a scary thought for those who call this party home.


Calgary Rants said...

Why are there still 24? Likely b/c He would face a full on revolt in caucus if he cut their roles and of course, most importantly, their pay. Once they smell blood....


Unknown said...

Do you ever get the feeling we are on the Exxon Valdez and Captain Hazelwood has just cracked open another beer?

Anonymous said...

Absolutely we are. It's time for stronger social legislation well beyond Bill 44 that only the Wildrose will offer. This blog mentions red tories as if they're a good thing - there the problem!

Jim said...

As an aside, why is Human Rights not in the appropriate ministry? Take a look at other provinces to see where HR is and compare that to Alberta. Not too long ago HR was in the Tourism Ministry.
That clearly demonstrates the priority HR is to our government. Pathetic.

Enlightened Savage said...

Jim: To be more precise, Human Rights were in the same ministry as Tourism, not the "Tourism ministry".

Human Rights were under the auspices of "Community Development". That ministry was later re-named "Tourism, Parks, Recreation and Culture". The ministry was later split, and HR is now taken care of by the ministry of "Culture and Community Spirit".