St. Albert MLA Stephen Khan was one of two rookie MLAs dropped from cabinet this week after an unexpected announcement by Premier Alison Redford.
Khan said he felt shock and a little bit of disappointment when he was notified of the change Monday morning, but said it was a responsible move by government.
"It's responsible leadership from the government to send the message to our partners in the public sector that this is a time to look at creating some efficiencies within our structures," he said.
Redford announced at the end of January that the province is facing a $6 billion revenue shortfall due to falling resource revenues. She warned of changes to government programs and services, to be outlined in the March 7 budget unveiling.
Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk – a St. Albert resident – takes over the Enterprise and Advanced Education portfolio. He has sat as deputy premier since the election last April but has not held a portfolio.
Tourism minister Christine Cusanelli was also booted from her position, to be replaced by Richard Starke, a first-time MLA representing Vegreville-Lloydminster.
The changes reduce the size of cabinet from 26 seats to 25.
"Recognizing the impact of falling resource revenues on our bottom line, my government will lead by example with a smaller, more focused cabinet," Redford said in a press release. "These changes will allow us to continue to build Alberta by putting a priority on economic diversification and growth."
Stefan Baranski, spokesperson for the premier's office, said the change to cabinet won't translate to significant cost savings despite a reduced staff, but rather, the change sends a clear message that the province is leading by example.
"We also elevated the prominence of advanced education and innovation to the deputy premier level and I think that really underscores the premier's agenda and intention to make long-term economic diversification in Alberta a reality," he said.
Baranski declined to discuss the reasoning behind the shuffle, adding Redford took the time to thank both Khan and Cusanelli for their contributions when she personally notified them of the changes.
Khan was named Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education shortly after being elected to office for the first time last April.
He was the first politician in the newly created portfolio and said he believes he was the right man for the job.
"I'm really proud of the work that we were able to do in a very short time," Khan said. "I'm leaving this department, I believe, in a bigger and better place than where we started. We started as two different entities coming together and we were able to come together as a cohesive team in a very short period of time."
Darwin Martin, spokesperson for the St. Albert Progressive Conservative Association, said the decision reflects the necessary belt-tightening across government.
"It is unfortunate that a very promising rookie cabinet minister fell victim to the budget realities that (are) facing Alberta today," he said.
Beth Bell, association secretary, said the decision will have little impact on the association, but is still upsetting.
"We're disappointed that Steve's been removed because I think he's a very good MLA and he's one of the most honest men I know," she said.
Although the cabinet changes have been cited as being economically and efficiency driven, political commentator Mark Lisac said the performance of the two ministers appears to be a factor in the decision.
"Khan was tentative at best any time he spoke in the legislature last fall. He had also … not been actively meeting members of the post-secondary community," he said. "His actions on the Enterprise side of the department have not been visible."
Grant MacEwan University political scientist Chaldeans Mensah echoed these observations and said the changes in cabinet are positive.
"(Khan) was not up front in terms of really linking up with his stakeholders and I think that's the reason why he has run afoul of the department," Mensah said, adding it was a tall order to task a rookie MLA with the Enterprise and Advanced Education portfolio.
He said Lukaszuk's experience, communication skills and close connections with the premier will greatly benefit the education and enterprise sectors.
Khan did not comment on whether his performance as minister affected the decision, adding he was proud of the work he accomplished and that people are going to speculate when a change like this takes place in government.
"Every day we continue to learn more about politics and I'm looking at this experience as a phenomenal learning experience and I hope I have a long career ahead of me," he said, adding he will now return to St. Albert to the position he was elected for.
Despite Khan's dismissal from cabinet, Mensah said his political career is far from over.
"I don't think this is the end of the road for Stephen Khan. I think he just has to realize that in the tough world of politics, these things happen," he said. "It's important for him to go back and do heavy lifting in the constituency."
Mensah said the decision to remove Cusanelli from cabinet could foreshadow changes in the portfolio, but also reflect past scandals that fail to support the province's money-saving agenda.
Cusanelli came under fire late last year after she was forced to repay $10,600 in expenses during her first five months as minister. This included a $4,000 tab to have her mother and daughter accompany her to the London Olympics.
"I don't think she would be the best person to preach that kind of austerity, that kind of tighten-your-belt approach," Mensah said.
He said replacing Cusanelli with a rural MLA could also help the Progressive Conservatives secure support from rural Albertans, an area that lost support to the Wildrose party in the last provincial election.