Kenney's cabinet shuffle: Senior ministers remain in place as new positions added

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney shuffled his cabinet Thursday, naming new ministers for transportation and culture but keeping major portfolios unaffected.

"There needs to be renewal every now and then in a government," Kenney said.

Leela Aheer, who had served as the minister of culture, multiculturalism and the status of women, now finds herself outside of cabinet after Thursday's announcement.

Aheer called on Kenney to apologize following images of him and other ministers dining on a rooftop patio in apparent violation of COVID-19 protocols at the time.

Her former ministry has now been broken up and distributed to other departments.

Kenney rejected assertions that her demotion was a result of that criticism.

"It's not about that or any particular incident," he said. "There's a lot of different factors that go into putting together the best collection of ministers."

But some experts disagree. 

"Leela Aheer is in the penalty box," political scientist Chaldeans Mensah said. "When you breach cabinet solidarity, you have to pay a price, and I think the shuffle is evidence of that."

Lacombe-Ponoka MLA Ron Orr was named the minister of culture. 

Whitney Issik joins cabinet as minister for status of women, and current parliamentary secretary Muhammad Yaseen will take on the multiculturalism portfolio.

"What he's done here is he has rewarded loyalty," Mensah told CTV News. 

Southern Alberta MLA Grant Hunter is also now out of cabinet, after being replaced as associate minister of red tape reduction by Tanya Fir, another Calgary MLA.

Fir was demoted from cabinet in the fall and was among the group of UCP staff and MLAs who drew public scorn last December by flying abroad in contravention of their own government's health recommendations.

Ric McIver, who had been serving two roles since January when he took over municipal affairs following Tracy Allard's resignation, will keep that file.

The other ministry he had been leading, transportation, will be taken over by Rajan Sawhney, former minister of community and social services.

Calgary-Foothills MLA Jason Luan will take over Sawhney's old portfolio as a full minister after serving as associate minister of mental health and addictions.

In his place, Kenney assigned Mike Ellis, MLA for Calgary-West.

High-profile cabinet members including Health Minister Tyler Shandro, Environment Minister Jason Nixon, Education Minister Adriana La Grange, and Finance Minister Travis Toews all remained in their roles.

OPPOSITION REACTION

The move comes as Kenney and his government both struggle with low poll numbers.

Former government MLAs Todd Loewen, who now sits as an independent, took aim at the premier increasing the size of cabinet from 22 to 26 ministers and associate ministers.

"Today he increased the size of government while forcing a chosen few to pay a political price for his own failures."

Loewen accused Kenney of "putting his own short-term political interests first."

"This shuffle has nothing to do with strengthening our province or helping Albertans. It was a crass attempt to buy the loyalty of disheartened and frustrated MLAs."

Calling the shuffle a "missed opportunity," Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said the shuffle does more to address the premier's internal party problems than make needed changes.

"The real problem with this government remains at the very top," she said. "He's oblivious to the real problems of Alberta families and small businesses."

NEW ASSOCIATE MINISTERS

Several new associate minister roles were also designated.

Nate Horner, MLA for Drumheller-Stettler, was to be sworn in as associate minister of rural economic development under the jobs and economy ministry.

Calgary-North MLA Yaseen will work under the labour and immigration ministry's Jason Copping as the associate minister of immigration and multiculturalism.

Pam Livingston, who signed on as Kenney's deputy chief of staff in February, was promoted to chief of staff. 

PREPARING FOR THE POLLS?

More than halfway through his term, Thursday's shuffle may show Kenney is looking ahead to a 2023 election. 

Six of the eight promotions went to Calgary MLAs, a city that's billed as the likely voting battleground for the legislature. 

Mensah believes by upping their profiles, Kenney can give some of his inner circle an election boost. 

"This cabinet shuffle is a bit of a reset for the party," he said. "So they need to come together as a team because the time before the next election will not allow for any more internal division."

With files from CTV News Edmonton