Alberta Premier Jason Kenney tinkered with his cabinet Thursday, introducing some new faces, including Lacombe-Ponoka MLA Ron Orr, and booting high-profile critic Leela Aheer from the decision-making table.
Aheer was removed from her post as minister of culture, multiculturalism and the status of women. Those job responsibilities were carved up and distributed to other departments.
Her responsibilities will now be handled by newcomers Ron Orr in culture and Whitney Issik for status of women, while current parliamentary secretary Muhammad Yaseen takes on the multiculturalism tasks.
Central Alberta is now represented by two ministers. Education Minister Adriana LaGrange retained her position.
Aheer, the member for Chestermere-Strathmore, publicly criticized Kenney a month ago for breaking COVID-19 health rules by having a patio dinner outside his temporary penthouse office.
Her comments led to Kenney reversing his steadfast claim that no rules had been broken and publicly apologizing.
Kenney dismissed suggestions that Aheer’s demotion was payback.
“I appreciate Leela’s contribution to the government in the past and I very much hope so in the future, but not everybody in caucus can serve in a ministerial role at the same time,” said Kenney.
“This is just about an opportunity for renewal.”
Aheer could not immediately be reached for comment.
Other changes saw Jason Luan move up to full cabinet status as minister of community and social services from associate minister in charge of mental health and addictions.
Rajan Sawhney, who also publicly criticized Kenney’s patio dinner, leaves the social services post to become the head of transportation.
Ric McIver had been handling the transportation and municipal affairs portfolios for the past six months but is now focused on the latter.
Former whip Mike Ellis takes over Luan’s old job, while one-time cabinet minister Tanya Fir replaces Grant Hunter as associate minister in charge of red tape reduction.
Kenney applauded Hunter’s work but said his demotion was also about government renewal.
This is Fir’s second go-round in cabinet. She was part of the original cabinet team sworn in on April 30, 2019, as minister in charge of economic development, trade and tourism. She was dropped from cabinet in August 2020.
Earlier this year, she was stripped of committee responsibilities after it was learned she was one of six United Conservative legislature members to ignore COVID-19 public health guidelines and travel to vacation hot spots over Christmas.
Backbencher Nate Horner, representing Drumheller Stettler, joins cabinet as an associate minister in charge of rural economic development.
Kenney didn’t make any changes to higher-profile portfolios, particularly those that have come under criticism.
Health Minister Tyler Shandro has been criticized for feuding with doctors over fees and rules. Education Minister Adriana LaGrange has fought with teachers and others over the proposed content of a new kindergarten to Grade 6 curriculum. Environment Minister Jason Nixon came under fire for a plan, since reversed, to close or sell off some provincial parks. Energy Minister Sonya Savage is dealing with concerns about proposals for expanded coal mining in the Rockies.
“I think all of those ministers have done a fantastic job. They have my complete support. This has been a challenging time,” said Kenney.
The changes come as Kenney seeks a reset with the public and with his caucus.
Kenney’s popularity numbers plunged during the pandemic and he faced problems in-house in April when 17 backbenchers publicly criticized his health restrictions as unfair and needlessly restrictive.
In May, Todd Loewen and Drew Barnes were voted out of caucus for challenging Kenney and the COVID-19 rules.
Kenney dismissed suggestions Thursday he was making the changes to smooth over bruised feelings.
“It’s not about that. We’ve put all of that behind us,” said Kenney.
He noted that some of his COVID-19 critics — Orr, Horner and Sawhney — were added to or remain in his cabinet.
“I always invite constructive criticism,” he said.
Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the changes were driven by internal politics rather than making changes in key ministries to help Alberta move past the pandemic and boost the economy, create jobs and help families.
“Any Albertan who was hoping to see a significant course correction from Jason Kenney will be deeply disappointed,” said Notley. “This shuffle is clearly an exercise in managing Jason Kenney’s internal UCP problems.
“(He) failed to remove the ministers who were obviously failing in their roles.”
Political scientist Duane Bratt agreed the changes were about Kenney’s in-house woes.
“The way to deal with problems in caucus is to reward your friends and punish your enemies,” said Bratt, who’s with Mount Royal University in Calgary.
“So he increases the size of cabinet, he gives key promotions to a couple of key allies like Jason Luan and Mike Ellis, and he makes a public example of Leela Aheer, who dared to criticize the leader.”