Premier Rachel Notley and her eleven cabinet colleagues were sworn in on Sunday in a very public ceremony on the steps of the Alberta Legislature. With just a dozen ministers, it’s one of the smallest cabinets in the province since the Great Depression.
Some observers have expressed concern about the level of experience of the new NDP team. Only four ministers have ever sat in the legislature, one of whom is the Premier herself. However, unlike her predecessor, she did not name any non-elected MLA’s to cabinet and she appears to have picked the most qualified of the new crop.
The Premier appointed all three returning MLAs to senior posts, along with others experienced in municipal government, teaching, and NDP party politics. With these selections, she created a politically balanced cabinet that respects the regional, gender, and cultural diversity within the province. However, there is weakness in the front bench in terms of expertise and experience in the areas of energy, transportation, and infrastructure – all key areas of concern for a resource rich province. Moreover, economic portfolio knowledge is not deep.
The last time Alberta had less than 15 cabinet ministers, the province’s population was 1.6 million. It now sits at over 4 million people. By all measures, this is a very small cabinet. There is room for growth later on, but this move was a deliberate political move and not just about changing the face of how things are done in Alberta by the new government. Given the relative inexperience of her caucus and cabinet, the premier needs to keep things under tight control. The fewer people to manage, the better.
Making the transition between governments
The focus of this initial group will be to learn, as quickly as possible, how the machinery of government works and where and how the major policy files are handled. Who is doing the teaching? A group of NDP staffers and advisors brought in from BC, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and some on loan from the federal Official Opposition. But these folks won’t know all of the policy levers for the files resident in Alberta so the other key group of advisors is the Alberta Public Service.
These civil servants are the only corporate knowledge left in the Alberta government. They will be the ones who will be shaping policy options for new ministers and staff to consider. The agenda set out by Notley and her team over the next few months is significant. On the list: a throne speech; a new provincial budget in the fall; a climate change strategy; and, a royalty review.
The expertise of the civil service will be essential to the success of the Notley government and will re-shape how industry and stakeholders interact with government. However, the newfound power of the civil service is also something novel for Alberta. Under the previous government, opinions of civil servants were not always welcome. We have been told that this was especially the case with former Premier Alison Redford.
This new responsibility will give the civil service in Alberta a chance to redefine itself. Further, the amalgamation of several ministries will break down previous silos between ministries that may have existed. Justice now cohabits with Aboriginal Affairs; Health and Seniors have been combined; Environment and Parks are a natural fit; and, Innovation, Advanced Education, Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour have all been blended into one super-ministry. Some combinations may end up being too large for a single Minister. However, the natural fit and the deliberateness of the integration should prove effective at breaking down the walls between ministries and allowing for greater transparency and interoperability.
This is the first iteration of the NDP cabinet that Albertans will see over the next four years. It is certainly not perfect but, with time and adjustment, it may prove effective. For stakeholders, it will be crucial to follow closely as the new government continues to evolve and develop.