Once known for its stability, Alberta has become Canada’s most turbulent political environment in recent years. This instability includes a revolving door of premiers, caused by changes in government and governing party leaders, and constant churn around the cabinet table.
The tendency to change in Alberta politics has meant that more power now rests in the premier’s office. But policy direction changes frequently and unpredictably because of instability in this important position. As a result, the ability to create and deliver sound policy is hampered, morale in the provincial public service declines and democratic accountability is compromised.
A revolving door in the premier’s office
Since 2010, Alberta has had six premiers, tied with Newfoundland and Labrador for the most during this period. This means Alberta has had roughly a new premier every two years for the past 12 years. The average number of premiers among all provinces during this period was 3.7, with Saskatchewan having the fewest at two (see figure 1).
Indeed, the tenure of Alberta premiers has declined dramatically (see figure 2). Rachel Notley is the only recent premier to serve an entire term in office without being ousted by her own party. The current premier, Jason Kenney, announced his resignation in May 2022, just three years into his first term.
A change in premier resulting from a new party in power has been exceptionally rare in Alberta history. The 2015 election of Notley’s NDP government, following almost 44 years of Progressive Conservative government, changed that. The province’s public service, in particular, did not have experience with this type of transition. Despite the principle of institutional neutrality and the need to work with governments of different political stripes, there was a lack of trust and understanding between the new NDP cabinet and the bureaucrats dedicated to serving them.
Some ministers and party staffers feared public servants had been “captured” after decades of conservative government. At the very least, many public servants struggled to make sense of, and adjust to, the different ideological approach to public policy.
The issues described were exacerbated by the notion, put forward by its critics, that the NDP was an “accidental government” that could be waited out until a conservative party returned to power. Indeed, when Kenney’s United Conservative Party (UCP) won the 2019 election and returned to the government benches, it then proceeded to make a flurry of legislative reversals.
The first legislative session after the election was aptly nicknamed “the summer of repeal,” as the party undid many of the NDP’s major initiatives. In some cases, policy initiatives that had continued through PC and NDP governments were abandoned. Thousands of public servants witnessed years’ worth of their work tossed aside in a matter of weeks, often with little to no consultation between the new UCP government and the departments that had crafted the policies.
Take the work being done since 2012 to implement city charters for Edmonton and Calgary. This would download decision-making authority in several areas. The first phase of the charter came into effect in 2018, but after being elected in 2019, the UCP abandoned the process. The impact on public servants’ morale of seeing an initiative that they worked on for years being suddenly abandoned cannot be understated. In the case of the UCP, open attacks on public sector workers during labour negotiations have not helped the situation.
In-party government transitions, which occur when a new leader becomes premier after being elected in an internal party race, have been common in Alberta, including the premierships of Ed Stelmach, Alison Redford, Jim Prentice and, in a few months, Kenney’s replacement.
David Zussman, a public management scholar and former assistant secretary in the Privy Council Office of Canada, notes that transitions within a party have proven to be the most complex to lead and implement. Even though the governing party does not change, the impact on policy and the public servants working on them can be significant. For example, when Prentice replaced Redford, several prominent bills relating to pensions and public sector workers’ right to strike were dropped.
Churn and inexperience at the cabinet table
The instability from shifts in the premiership are multiplied when considering the number of changes around the cabinet table. Over the past two election cycles, Alberta has witnessed a total of nine cabinet shuffles, placing it behind only Quebec, which has had 12.
Even core government departments that typically exhibit stability have had an unusually high number of ministers. Municipal Affairs, alone, has had 11 ministers over the past 12 years (figure 3).
The collapse of the old Progressive Conservative Party, the emergence of the UCP in 2017 and the meteoric rise of the New Democratic Party, ushered a new cohort of political rookies into the Alberta legislature. This gave both Notley and Kenney few options when it came to appointing experienced politicians to cabinet.
Since 2015, fewer than a third (31 per cent) of all ministers in Alberta entered cabinet with any sort of legislative experience, defined as one or more years sitting in a legislative body in Canada (figure 4). The Canadian average over the same period was 71 per cent.
A high rate of ministerial turnover affects policy-making because the minister isn’t around long enough to oversee and drive policy change, resulting in unfulfilled mandates and uncertainty about direction.
As researchers Indridi Indridason and Christopher Kam note: “long ministerial tenure is necessary but not sufficient to ensure that the bureaucracy actually implements the policies that duly elected politicians (and presumably voters) want implemented.” Continual changes at the head of many government ministries have limited long-range planning and sustained implementation of major policy initiatives.
For example, an update to the Police Act 2000 to address multiple issues, including police oversight, has been demanded by various groups for years. Public consultations took place under the UCP government, but the legislation is still forthcoming. The justice department, which typically sees longer-tenured ministers, given the informal requirement for a legal background, has had three different ministers in about three years. This includes the replacement of Kaycee Madu in early 2022 after a report found he interfered with the administration of justice.
Inexperience among ministers also means they fail to develop mastery over their portfolio. The minister can become too reliant on the public service for expertise. This can delay initiatives because bringing a minister up to speed on specific files takes a considerable amount of time and resources.
The other possibility is that ministers become reliant on, and beholden to, the premier’s office. This affects their autonomy and harms democratic accountability by eroding the principle of ministerial responsibility. For example, the Kenney government reduced the role of some ministers, caucus and the public service in launching much of its own legislative agenda and responding to emerging issues such as the pandemic. In these cases, the government ran policy out of the premier’s office.
The overall impact of political turbulence in Alberta leaves us with a worrisome conclusion. Frequent changes and inexperience among ministers have meant that power is concentrated in the premier’s office with a small group of trusted advisors (at the expense of the public service and individual).
This is not new in Canadian public administration and policy-making. But what is unique about the past decade in Alberta politics is that the revolving door of premiers has limited their capacity to wield power effectively and for long periods of time.
The result has seen Alberta policy-making veer wildly from government to government, premier to premier and minister to minister. This affects the morale of the public service, makes sound policy development challenging and reduces democratic accountability.
All this political instability comes amidst population growth, dramatic changes in resource revenue, a global pandemic and a series of tragic natural disasters (including wildfires in Slave Lake and Fort McMurray and the southern Alberta floods). In short, at a time when the public service has been called upon most to demonstrate stable governance and sound policy-making, the political environment has hardly been conducive.