Evan Berger should wait full year as required by law
By Markham Hislop
Defeated Alberta PC candidate Evan Berger should not have been hired as a senior policy advisor to the deputy minister of agriculture. Full stop.
Prior to this spring’s election, Evan Berger was the agriculture minister. Now he’s been handed a nice six-figure salary to serve as a policy advisor to his former deputy. This is exactly the kind of nonsense Premier Alison Redford pledged to stop.
I stood five feet from Redford while covering her victory speech at Calgary’s Metro Centre on April 23 and I distinctly recall her saying that she had heard loud and clear Alberta voters’ desire for change. Just for kicks, I found the audio file of that speech. Here’s what Redford had to say about change:
“Today Alberta, you spoke and you spoke loudly and I want you to know that I heard you. Since becoming your premier, I’ve talked often about how Alberta has changed and it’s time for politics and government to catch up. This election has driven that point home to me.”
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Apparently Redford developed amnesia during the intervening four months. Appointing the ex-minister of agriculture to a senior civil service position in the same department he oversaw only a few months ago is the very worst sort of cronyism.
To make matters worse, there are rules against this sort of thing. Former cabinet ministers are supposed to observe a one year cooling off period before accepting contracts from departments with which they had “significant official dealings” during their last year in cabinet.
Most people would agree Berger’s role as minister of the agriculture department qualifies as a conflict of interest. The opposition parties think so. They were baying for blood after the announcement about his new position.
“This is part of a well established pattern within the PC government and senior government officials of rewarding insiders and cronies and then waiving the rules when they get in the way,” Wildrose Deputy House Leader Shayne Saskiw said. “They see themselves as above the law and entitled to draw from the taxpayer trough without any repercussions.”
But Ethics Commissioner Neil Wilkinson had no problem at all with the appointment. He provided Evan Berger with a waiver of the one-year restriction, which is provided for under the governing legislation.
Saskiw wants Wilkinson to publicly explain his decision to waive Berger’s obvious conflict of interest. Better yet, Saskiw says, release the documents the ethics commissioner used as the basis of that decision.
“This latest action by the ethics commissioner brings the whole office into disrepute. We have a case here where a former PC cabinet minister, who is still an active partisan for the PC party, getting hired by his former staff just a few months after the election yet he gets a free ride. This is rotten to the core,” Saskiw said.
Rotten to the core, indeed.
When Roy Romanow became Saskatchewan premier in 1991 there was an unwritten rule that defeated provincial and federal NDP politicians could not set foot in his office. Not even his waiting room. And forget about fat consulting contracts and “special policy advisor” appointments. Romanow wanted to avoid even the appearance of the corruption that tainted PC premier Grant Devine’s two terms in office (13 Tory MLAs were eventually convicted of embezzling from the government and some served jail time).
That’s real change.
So take the focus off the ethics commissioner and put it where it belongs, the premier.
The buck stops with Alison Redford. She said on election night that she planned to change for the better how the Progressive Conservatives govern Alberta. Responsibility for implementing change begins and ends with her.
And don’t think for a moment she didn’t know about the appointment of Evan Berger or sign off on it. Patronage is one of a leader’s most powerful tools. The Premier keeps close tabs on who gets appointed to what, all the more so when it’s a high-profile appointment. They don’t come much higher than former cabinet ministers.
Let’s take a moment to remember the first few weeks of the election campaign, when Danielle Smith and the Wildrose were ascendent and it looked like 40-plus years of PC dynasty was about to be crushed. What were voters saying? The PCs were tired, they were corrupt, they were arrogant, and so on.
Hiring Evan Berger reinforces the voter sentiment that almost kicked the PCs out of power a few short months ago. Have they forgotten the lesson already?
Redford should step in and reverse Berger’s appointment immediately. At the very least he should wait another eight months until he complies with the conflict of interest guidelines.
The Premier should also explain the rationale behind Berger’s contract. He may indeed be a very competent guy, but does Alberta have such a pressing farming emergency that his presence in the department of agriculture is required yesterday? Or does Redford have so little faith in current ag minister Verlyn Olsen that she planted Berger in the department to prop him up?
Redford promised change. This ain’t change.