EDMONTON — Premier Ed Stelmach is overhauling Alberta’s 24-member cabinet in attempt to turn around his Progressive Conservative government’s sagging popularity.
Fiscal hawk Ted Morton moves to finance, where the government has promised to cut $2 billion from the deficit in next month’s budget.
Former Liberal Gene Zwozdesky has been named health minister, replacing the feisty Ron Liepert, who is going to one trouble spot to another as the new energy minister.
“My new team will tackle Alberta’s fiscal challenges with determination,” the premier said Wednesday in a release. “Alberta’s future is bring and our best days are yet to come.”
Three senior ministers have been ousted — Fred Lindsay is being replaced by Frank Oberle as solicitor general; Jack Hayden takes over agriculture from George Groeneveld; and Janice Tarchuk loses children and youth services to Yvonne Fritz.
Oberle is one of three new faces in cabinet along with Edmonton’s Thomas Lukaszuk in employment and Jonathan Denis, a rookie member from Calgary, who gets the housing portfolio.
Recent polls suggest Stelmach’s Tories are facing a strong challenge from the upstart Wildrose Alliance, which recently attracted two government defectors.
Liepert had become a lightning rod for growing discontent among Albertans and many critics had been calling for his resignation. Roughly 500 people packed a community meeting in Edmonton this week to voice their protests over cuts to health programs and beds.
Zwozdesky is known to be a hard worker and is described by one official with the group Friends of Medicare as a bit of a “pleaser.”
In energy, Liepert will have to face the backlash from the oilpatch over changes to the Alberta’s royalty structure, which along with falling oil and natural gas prices has dried up energy-related investment and jobs in the province.
Doug Horner is the new deputy premier and remains in advanced education, while Iris Evans moves from finance to intergovernmental relations.
Mel Knight leaves energy to become minister of sustainable resource development, Hector Goudreau takes municipal affairs, and Ray Danyluk moves to infrastructure.
Len Webber is now minister of aboriginal relations.
The premier has also named Fred Horne parliamentary assistant for seniors and Diana McQueen as parliamentary assistant for energy.
Robin Campbell is the new whip.
Stelmach says the new cabinet will usher Alberta out of the recession.
“I have promised Albertans that we will be back in the black in three years and I have not wavered from that commitment,” said the premier.
“We are going to take the necessary steps to ensure we emerge from this economic downturn even stronger than before.”
The new sitting of the legislature begins with a throne speech Feb. 4 followed by an early provincial budget on Feb. 9.