EDMONTON - Alberta Premier Alison Redford has reduced her cabinet by one and shuffled out two rookie ministers, including one who came under fire for her expenses.
Deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk will take on additional responsibilities as minister of enterprise and advanced education. He replaces St. Albert member of the legislature Stephen Khan in that portfolio.
Richard Starke, a retired veterinarian who was elected in the Vermilion-Lloydminster riding in last spring's election, takes over tourism from Christine Cusanelli.
Cusanelli came under fire last year for mishandling her personal expenses when she billed taxpayers to fly her, her mother and daughter to the London Olympics.
In a government release Monday, Redford explained the changes as reaction to a projected $6-billion revenue shortfall in the March budget and what she referred to as the effects of the "bitumen bubble".
"Recognizing the impact of falling resource revenues on our bottom line, my government will lead by example with a smaller, more focused cabinet," said Redford. "These changes will allow us to continue to build Alberta by putting a priority on economic diversification and growth."
Lukaszuk said having one less minister sitting around the cabinet table will save some money.
"I can't tell you what the dollar value will be but there will be definite savings ... We are tightening our belts."
He gave credit to Khan and Cusanelli for working hard and said Redford is simply "refocusing the province and our priorities in view of the budget."
"You pick individuals that you think are in position best to deliver for the province and that's the decision she made."
He wouldn't say if Cusanelli lost her post because of the expense ado last year. "I can't comment on that. It was a very difficult decision the premier had to make."
Every department is facing cuts in the upcoming budget, said Lukaszuk, who added he'll be looking at efficiencies in his portfolio as well. But he said it's too early to say whether he will amalgamate any services at post-secondary institutions.
He said the new portfolio, in addition to his tasks as deputy premier, gives him a lot of work to do.
"I've been joking that I will be moving my bed into my office shortly because I thought I was busy and now I will be extremely busy."
The Opposition Wildrose said the changes are cosmetic and suggested they are intended more as damage control.
"I think governments only turf cabinet ministers when they're in deep trouble and they want to change the channel," said Shayne Saskiw, the Wildrose deputy house leader. "It's understandable that they would want to change the channel with the budget crisis and these never-ending ethical standards."
Cusanelli admitted last year she misunderstood what could be charged and didn't handle her personal expenses well.
Documents showed she was ordered in August to pay back $10,600 for improper personal expenses racked up since joining the legislature and cabinet following last April's election.
Cusanelli's expenses included 31 separate items that needed to be repaid. The largest cost was $4,078 for two airline tickets to London during the Olympics. Cusanelli was working there in an official capacity promoting the province.
"It took premier Redford two months to turf Cusanelli, a cabinet minister, for incorrectly charging taxpayers 31 times in a five-month window," said Saskiw.
"This is just reflecting the judgment of premier Redford that took this long to make this change and she ultimately wears the decisions that were made in that department."
In a tweet, political scientist Duane Bratt from Mount Royal University in Calgary expressed his opinion that the move hurts the Alberta cabinet's diversity.
"Losing one of the few women and visible minorities and replacing them with two white guys," he pointed out.
NDP leader Brian Mason said the move wasn't a surprise.
"There are dealings within the PC cabinet that we are not privy to and these adjustments are a symptom of discontent within Redford's caucus."
— By Bill Graveland in Calgary with files from Chris Purdy in Edmonton