Why Jason Kenney’s cabinet shuffle is a late-day news dump

Journalists, that skeptical lot, like to refer to government announcements sent out past 4 p.m. as “taking out the trash.”

That late-afternoon, almost-evening period is when a government or other institution likes to haul out the news releases or announcements that don’t produce the rosiest headlines — the stuff officials aren’t proud of, and which they’d prefer to not get the same scrutiny, consideration and reaction that announcements put out earlier in the day will get. Most journalists don’t punch out at 5 p.m., but they have families and/or microwave dinners to get home to like everybody else.

Typical garbage-time releases include awkward policy flip-flops or damning reports. Cabinet shuffles, though? Highly irregular that would be slotted in at garbage time.

A cabinet shuffle is normally a high-profile and public affair (held at morning or midday), with the pomp and ceremony and Lieutenant-Governor presiding and get-to-know-the-minister (and-their-agendas) interviews and news conferences.

The Jason Kenney government, as Alberta has witnessed so often these last three years, does things differently. On 4 p.m. Tuesday, at the strike of trash o’clock, Premier Kenney announced via news release that a new Alberta finance minister named Jason Nixon was sworn in (after serving as acting minister in that role briefly), along with four brand-new cabinet members and a bevy of other changes.

There were no photojournalists present with Jason Nixon, left, was appointed finance minister. This image is from his 2019 appointment as environment minister. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press )

Rumours began percolating late afternoon Tuesday. There was no formal notice to journalists, no ability for reporters to question any of these new ministers about their intentions or their perceived abilities, or the premier himself about his strategy, motivations or intentions behind his choices.

With Kenney’s meeker-than-usual shuffle by email, photojournalists cannot capture images and video footage of the little-captured new Environment Minister Whitney Issik, Children’s Services Minister Matt Jones or Infrastructure Minister Nick Milliken — whose roles and actions (or inactions) inevitably will become newsworthy over the next several months.

This way, they are sort of faceless new faces in Kenney’s executive team. (Even later in the day, the premier’s office issued a government employee’s photos of ministers getting sworn in. Visual news releases.)

Ministers of a Lesser Consequence

These are, of course, temporary promotions and job switches, enacted by a lame-duck premier who will be replaced by a new United Conservative Party leader in October. The moves may be less part of a bold new agenda, more out of necessity, because Kenney’s ministers of finance, transportation and children’s services have all quit to pursue the UCP leadership.

A new premier may well discard some or all of the new ministers, and most of their lives with portfolio will proceed over a breezy summer, with the premier eyeing the exit sign and his government likely headed into caretaker mode, if it isn’t there already.

Departing premiers before Kenney, like Ralph Klein and Ed Stelmach, handled similar shuffles with more of the transparency and accountability that cabinet reorganizations normally get. (Stelmach’s final shuffle in 2011 and Klein’s in 2006 was by news release but issued earlier in the day and were followed up by non-secret swearing-in ceremonies — and the premiers or their ministers granted interviews about rationale and plans.)

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and his new cabinet ministers hold a press conference after a cabinet shuffle at Government House in Edmonton on Thursday, July 8, 2021. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

It appears Kenney didn’t want such scrutiny. It means he and his new ministers won’t get questions like:

  • With massive surpluses expected and a provincial fiscal update due before the new premier arrives, how does Finance Minister Nixon intend to manage billions of extra resource royalty dollars on Albertans’ behalf?
  • What is Children’s Services Minister Jones’s approach to furthering the federal-provincial child care deal’s goal of $10-a-day daycare?
  • With new reports that the oil and gas sector probably cannot reach its 2030 carbon emissions targets without production cuts, how does Environment Minister Issik expect the industry can avert that economically damaging outcome?
  • Why is newly named chief whip Brad Rutherford, until now a backbencher, suddenly named “minister without portfolio?” What does that mean, Mr. Kenney?
  • With so much of the UCP caucus based in rural Alberta, why are all the newly appointed cabinet ministers from Calgary or the Edmonton region, Mr. Kenney?
  • Does this have anything to do with electoral calculus and a belief that politically vulnerable MLAs in areas the NDP have won before need the profile enhancement that cabinet brings?
  • Do any these cabinet changes mean that Alberta’s elected government will carry out policies or plans differently, Mr. Kenney?

That’s probably enough questions for now. Look at the hour.

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