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Bringing Jason Nixon and Ric McIver back into cabinet was smart politics
Nixon was Kenney’s chief lieutenant and is reviled by Smith’s core supporters
It has been almost two weeks since Alberta Premier Danielle Smith named her new 24-member cabinet and a lot of ink has been spilled dissecting what the appointments could mean for the start of the United Conservative Party’s second term as government and the next four years.
There are big challenges facing the new cabinet, especially for ministers appointed to high-profile positions.
Minister of Finance Nate Horner will ride the oil revenue roller coaster and probably be the point person in any effort by the Alberta government to withdraw from the Canada Pension Plan. Minister of Health Adriana LaGrange is faced with a shortage of nurses and health care workers that is impacting every community in the province. And the tag-team of Minister of Energy and Minerals Brian Jean and Environment and Protected Areas Minister Rebecca Schulz will likely spend a lot of time opposing Ottawa’s climate change plans.
But what caught my attention among the appointments was the return of two former cabinet ministers who were pushed into the backbenches when Smith entered the Premier’s Office last October.
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I’ve written before that Ric McIver is one of the UCP’s most underused political resources. The veteran Calgary politician was first elected to the Legislature in 2012 and served on City Council for eleven years before that. He now re-enters cabinet as Minister of Municipal Affairs, marking his second time occupying that role.
McIver is plain-spoken and by all accounts, a pretty decent person, and he brings a lot of political experience to the cabinet table. That experience might be what cost him a cabinet role last year. He’s the only MLAs still serving in the Legislature who was elected as a Progressive Conservative in 2012, when leader Alison Redford defeated Smith’s Wildrose Party. And McIver was very public in 2019 when he warned UCP members at the party’s founding policy convention: “don’t become the Lake of Fire party.”
He was removed from cabinet when Smith became Premier in 2022 but was appointed as a special envoy to the City of Calgary on the Calgary Flames Arena negotiations, which became a centre piece of the UCP’s re-election campaign in that city. With NDP gains in Calgary reducing the UCP’s Calgary contingent by half, putting McIver back in cabinet is a good move for the UCP in the province’s largest city.
McIver’s appointment to cabinet also put to rest a rumour that he was considering a run for Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, a position that incumbent Nathan Cooper was re-elected to by MLAs on Tuesday.
The second appointment that caught my eye is the return of Jason Nixon to cabinet, now as Minister of Seniors, Community and Social Services.
Nixon’s is a political story worth telling.
Despite a series of poor decisions and questionable activities that would probably drive most people away from political life, Nixon has proved to have good political instincts - to the complete frustration of his opponents inside and outside his party.
From 2017 to 2022, Nixon was Premier Jason Kenney’s most loyal lieutenant, which led to his steep rise and sharp decline in political fortunes. But now he’s back.
Smith removed him from cabinet after he served as Minister of Finance in the final days of Kenney's government. Nixon’s loyalty to Kenney and support for the government’s COVID-19 public health measures made him a villain to a vocal and well-organized group in Central Alberta who opposed vaccine mandates and had close connections to the Take Back Alberta group. He lost control of his constituency association board and even faced a challenge from a well-known former local county councillor but triumphed over his opposition in the election.
But that’s not where Nixon’s story begins.
Nixon beat an incumbent MLA to win the Wildrose Party nomination in Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre in 2014, and stuck with the party when Smith and most Wildrose MLAs crossed the floor to the PCs later that year. He was elected as MLA in the 2015 election.
While initially skeptical of the Wildrose-PC merger that would create the UCP, Nixon was named one of the Wildrose Party’s representatives on the negotiating committee that agreed to form the new party.
Instead of backing then-Wildrose leader Brian Jean for the UCP leadership in 2017, as many political watchers expected, Nixon backed PC leader Kenney (Jean’s campaign responded with a hastily written press release announcing endorsements from two mayors in Nixon’s ridings, including one who didn’t expect the endorsement to go public that day).
Nixon’s loyalty to Kenney was rewarded with an appointment as party leader in the legislature until Kenney won a 2017 by-election in Calgary-Lougheed.
When the UCP formed the government, he was named Government House Leader and Minister of Environment and Parks.
Of the two positions, the former gave him a great degree of control over the mechanisms of government inside the Legislature, to the frustration of opposition NDP MLAs. The latter position gave him the ability to dismantle plans to create the Bighorn Wildland Provincial Park in his riding. But efforts to privatize and close more than 180 provincial parks were met with stiff opposition that caused a lot of trouble for the UCP government (the government eventually backed down).
Nixon’s political instincts aside, his family has also played a prominent role in the Wildrose and UCP.
Nixon’s father, Pat Nixon, is the founder of the Mustard Seed, a Christian non-profit street ministry for the homeless in Calgary. In 2019, he was appointed co-chair of the government’s Mental Health and Addiction Advisory Council and was the keynote speaker at Kenney’s revived Alberta Prayer Breakfast in 2019.
Jason Nixon inherited the cabinet role previously filled by his younger brother, Jeremy Nixon, who was appointed to Smith’s cabinet last October as Minister of Seniors, Community and Social Services. The younger Nixon brother ran twice for the Wildrose Party and twice for the UCP. He was defeated by New Democrat Lizette Tejada in Calgary-Klein last month.
With one Nixon brother’s loss, the other Nixon brother made a return to the cabinet table.
I don’t usually make many predictions in these columns but I will make one today: I think Jason Nixon will one day be leader of the UCP and probably Premier of Alberta.
With six cabinet ministers and three former ministers having gone down to defeat in the May 29 election, Smith was left with a smaller pool of MLAs with governing experience.
Bringing McIver back into the fold was smart and a good move, because his experience was wasted in the backbenches and the UCP needs to try to recuperate from its losses in Calgary. He probably also has more name recognition in Calgary than any of city’s other remaining UCP MLAs.
Nixon was a different calculation. Smith’s core supporters railed against him and Kenney during the leadership race, and his removal from cabinet in 2022 was celebrated by that same crowd. But Nixon’s political experience and the possibility he could have become a bigger problem for Smith if he remained exiled to the backbenches outweighed any cries of foul play from critics inside the UCP who cheered his downfall eight months ago.
Bringing Jason Nixon and Ric McIver back into cabinet was smart politics.
Calgary Heritage by-election on July 24
A federal by-election has been called in the Calgary Heritage riding to choose a successor to former Conservative MP Bob Benzen, who resigned his seat on December 31, 2022.
Benzen was first elected in a 2017 by-election replace former prime minister Stephen Harper, who served as the MP for the riding and its predecessor riding, Calgary-Southwest, from 2002 to 2017. Former Reform Party leader Preston Manning represented the area from 1993 to 2002.
The favourite to win is Conservative candidate Shuv Majumdar, who stepped down as the head of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s foreign policy and national security program to run for the party nomination. Majumdar worked in the Prime Minister’s Office and began his involvement in politics as a young activist in the Reform Party in Calgary in the late 1990s.
During the race for the Canadian Alliance leadership in 2000, Majumdar and current Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre wrote duelling columns in the Calgary Herald on May 6, 2000 in favour of Manning (Majumdar) and Stockwell Day (Poilievre).
Poilievre would later work as a campaign assistant to Canadian Alliance nominee Ezra Levant, who reluctantly stepped aside to allow new Canadian Alliance leader Harper to run in the 2002 by-election in this riding (the nominated federal PC candidate who planned to run in the by-election was future premier Jim Prentice, but he stepped aside as a courtesy to allow Harper to win a seat in the House of Commons).
Back to 2023, the Liberals have nominated Elliot Weinstein, the owner of The Beach YYC, a dedicated indoor beach facility. Ravenmoon Crocker is running for the Green Party, and former Senate nominee election candidate Kelly Lorencz is running for the People’s Party. Perennial election candidate Larry Heather is running for the Christian Heritage Party. The NDP have not named a candidate.
A few more things…
A judicial recount has confirmed that NDP candidate Nagwan Al-Guneid was elected in Calgary-Glenmore. Al-Guneid defeated UCP incumbent MLA Whitney Issik by 48 votes. Another judicial recount is being held in the neighbouring Calgary-Acadia, where an automatic recount found that NDP candidate Diana Batten defeated UCP incumbent MLA and former justice minister Tyler Shandro by 25 votes.
The UCP have scheduled their Annual General Meeting for November 3 and 4, 2023 at the Grey Eagle Resort. All eyes will be on Take Back Alberta to watch if the political action committee’s endorsed candidates are able to sweep these board elections, like they did at last year’s AGM.
Longtime political staffer Jonah Mozeson is the new Managing Director of the Alberta government’s Communications and Public Engagement branch (formerly known as the Public Affairs Bureau). He moves into this position after serving as a ministerial chief of staff and as the Executive Director of Communications in the Premier’s Office. This move likely reflects how much of a priority it is for the Premier that government messaging be crafted in a way that avoids creating trouble with a raucous group of UCP MLAs. His wife, Jamie Mozeson, is now the Executive Director of the UCP Caucus.
Visual artist Raymond Biesinger has released an amazing print of a vintage Rat Control in Alberta booklet cover. Biesinger writes on his website: “Alberta has two provincial slogans: the official "Fortis et Liber" and the unofficial "Rat Free Since 1950". Both are questionable, but one of them resulted in the incredible Rat Control in Alberta booklet, first published in 1954 and revised in 1961. Copies are rare. I've never seen one in real life, and I can find only two low-quality copies online.”
Edmonton City Councillor Michael Janz is hosting a June 24 event with writer and technology critic Paris Marx.
Former Liberal Party leader Kevin Taft has emerged as the spokesperson of a group of homeowners critical of Edmonton City Council’s ongoing zoning bylaw review. Taft served as the MLA for Edmonton-Riverview from 2001 to 2012 and as Leader of the Official Opposition from 2004 to 2008. Writer David Berry offered an energetic response to Taft’s op-ed in the Edmonton Journal.
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