Alberta Premier Alison Redford has replaced two of her cabinet ministers, a minor shuffle she says is evidence of her government "leading by example" as it focuses on economic development and looks for savings leading up to next month's budget.
Two rookie ministers, Stephen Khan and Christine Cusanelli, were let go from cabinet after nine months on the job. In turn, Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk took on extra duties and a backbench MLA, Richard Starke, was promoted.
It's a largely symbolic reorganization – the number of ministries doesn't change, and MLA pay guidelines suggest the savings amount to about $30,000 in annual salary, with one fewer person in cabinet and Mr. Lukaszuk taking on a portfolio, which includes a pay increase.
"Recognizing the impact of falling resource revenues on our bottom line, my government will lead by example with a smaller, more focused cabinet," Ms. Redford said in a written statement, adding that the new ministers will help government navigate the effects of a drop on oil revenue, what she calls a bitumen bubble.
Mr. Khan had served as Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education, overseeing postsecondary education and economic diversification efforts. It's a major file tied to, primarily, university funding. Mr. Lukaszuk replaces him and remains deputy premier – he joked Monday he's move his bed into his office as work piles up.
Ms. Cusanelli makes way for Mr. Starke, a retired veterinarian and first-term MLA from eastern Alberta. He becomes Tourism Minister.
The cash savings are minimal for a $40-billion government, but may signal further cuts, one observer says.
"It's possible that this is a kind of symbolic measure before cost-cutting measures are made. Or it is possible that it's going to be what we saw with the [former premier Don] Getty government, where you saw this kind of thing every single year. They announced they were going to cut the travel budget, hospitality budget, freeze their pay, but they never actually dealt with the larger spending issues. It could go either way," said Derek Fildebrandt, Alberta director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, adding: "If this is what they mean by belt-tightening, we're doomed."
Mr. Khan and Ms. Cusanelli were both somewhat surprising picks when Ms. Redford revealed her cabinet following last year's spring election. Ms. Cusanelli was later the subject of controversy after booking airline tickets on a government account for family members to fly to the Olympics. She later repaid the costs.
The sudden move caught observers off-guard – including government staff and those in postsecondary institutions who now deal with Mr. Lukaszuk.
"I'm honoured and thrilled to be able to do this," Mr. Lukaszuk said Monday, heaping praise on the two dismissed ministers. They faced a "big task," learning the job as both rookie ministers and first-term MLAs, he said. "It was a very difficult decision the premier had to make," he said.
Mr. Lukaszuk said the move will save money, though he couldn't say how much. "But it sends a clear message. We are tightening our belts and you will see other announcements relevant to that in the forthcoming future."
Ms. Redford's spokesman, Stefan Baranski, said questions about the savings generated by the cabinet shuffle were "pedantic," missing the point of a government making a symbolic move as it looks to cut costs.
Ms. Redford thanked Mr. Khan and Ms. Cusanelli for "their advice and significant efforts in advancing our government's growth agenda over the past year."
The Alberta budget is due March 7 and "most decisions are pretty well made," Mr. Lukaszuk said. The new ministers have little time to get up to speed. After initially pledging to balance the books, Ms. Redford's government is instead facing a multibillion-dollar deficit. Ms. Redford has said government will "hold the line" on spending, but that "tough choices" lie ahead. Her ministers are looking had been looking for cuts.
Mr. Lukaszuk warned he too "will be looking at efficiencies," but laughed off suggestions he'd been brought in as a hatchet man. Instead, he says his appointment reflects another renewed push on tailoring postsecondary education to economic development, hinting university programs not tied to jobs could be facing cuts. "We don't know how big the cuts will be. But the fact is it's not all about money. It's how you spend the money you have," he said.