Not so many days ago, the Legislative Press Gallery crowd raised a huge hue and cry about Dr. Swann’s sudden firing of Communications Director Neil Mackie. It was a good story for a day or two – the deed was nasty enough to be compared to a mafia hit by one journalistic hyperbolist. It was reportedly done while Dr. Swann warmed his lanky frame on a Mexican beach, not atypical behaviour for a politician criticized by some insiders as only a “part-time” leader.
But while the media was in a swivet about Mr. Mackie’s sudden departure to pursue unexpected opportunities, nobody bothered to mention that Conservative Premier Ed Stelmach and NDP Leader Brian Mason between them seem to have gone through more communications guys than most of us have shoes in our closets. And if Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith hasn’t been observed doing the same thing, that’s likely because she hardly even needs communications staff except to type up the press handouts for stenographic reproduction by the Calgary Herald. Anyway, give her time!
Meanwhile, back at the Liberal caucus where Dr. Swann has turned his attention from his caucus employees to his caucus mates, it sounds very much as if the Calgary physician with a passing resemblance to Abraham Lincoln doesn’t really care if anyone reaches the conclusion he’s not Mr. Nice Guy any more.
Leastways, when Dr. Swann shuffled his shadow cabinet yesterday, among the things he did was dump the respected Hugh MacDonald as employment and labour critic, inexplicably replacing him with low-key Calgary-Varsity MLA Harry Chase, who is not expected to run again in the next election.
One imagines that Mr. MacDonald – one if the most capable MLAs in the little Liberal caucus that shrank – is none too happy about losing a responsibility in which he knew his stuff and performed well. Moreover, since Mr. MacDonald was a tough and effective critic, it’s likely that Alberta Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk will be delighted by this turn of events.
In labour circles, however, reactions are likely to be more complicated. Leaders of Alberta’s building trade unions held Mr. MacDonald in high regard. He was a former member of one of their unions, the Boilermakers, and they knew he genuinely cared about the welfare of working Albertans. So they will be sorry to see him go.
However, other unionists who actively support the New Democrats were cooler about him, for obvious partisan reasons, seeing him as a Liberal carpetbagger in what they regard as their natural bailiwick.
So maybe this move by Dr. Swann can be interpreted as an offering of aid and comfort to those particular New Democrats. After all, alert readers will recall that not so long ago, Dr. Swann was sending billets-doux to the Alberta New Democrats, to the intense annoyance of both NDP Leader Brian Mason and his own Liberal Party president, who quit over it.
Unhappy though Mr. MacDonald may be, it’s likely that no matter what happens, the truly Liberal-red Edmonton-Gold Bar MLA will be the last Alberta Liberal standing. At any rate, it’s impossible to imagine him departing for the Independent benches in a huff, as did his former caucus colleague Dave Taylor, or consorting with another party.
Meanwhile, Dr. Swann’s decision to take the health-care critic’s portfolio for himself is probably a smart one. As a well-known physician and controversial public health official once fired by the Conservatives for speaking his mind too plainly, Dr. Swann clearly has some credibility with a file that Premier Stelmach’s bumbling and doctor-less cabinet and caucus have clearly bungled.
Despite Dr. Swann’s uninspiring low-impact style during Question Time, he’s likely to do much better asking questions about a field in which he’s one of a relatively few people in the Legislature who knows what he’s talking about!
As for skidding his communications guy and shuffling an able caucus member who may not have wanted to be shuffled, well, in the end for most Albertans that’s just so much inside baseball. It’s not going to have any measurable impact on how the public sees Dr. Swann.
If anything, many voters will likely approve. After all, most Canadians don’t really care if their leaders are nice guys, only that they seem competent and tough minded and prepared to make difficult decisions when circumstances warrant.
Nobody’s going to lose any sleep over the rest of Dr. Swann’s portfolio reassignments.
The real question, now, is if acting tough a couple of times going to be enough to change anything important for Dr. Swann in time for the next election?
If he can’t do something to sharpen up his political instincts and think faster in Question Period, and if he isn’t prepared to devote himself to the cause 24/7, probably not.
This post also appears on rabble.ca.