EDMONTON - Premier Ed Stelmach is overhauling Alberta's 24-member cabinet in attempt to turn around his Progressive Conservative government's sagging popularity.
Fiscal hawk Ted Morton moves to finance, where the government has promised to cut $2 billion from the deficit in next month's budget.
Morton was instrumental in the now defunct Reform Party during its founding years and was once appointed as a policy director.
Former Liberal Gene Zwozdesky has been named Health minister, replacing the feisty Ron Liepert, who is going from one trouble spot to another as the new Energy minister.
Fred Lindsay was replaced by Frank Oberle as Solicitor General; Jack Hayden takes over Agriculture from George Groeneveld and Janice Tarchuk will hand over the Department of Children and Youth Services to Yvonne Fritz.
Edmonton's Thomas Lukaszuk is taking over the Employment Department, while Jonathan Denis, a rookie member from Calgary, gets the Housing portfolio.
The premier used a sports analogy Wednesday as he described the changes to his front bench.
"Putting together a cabinet is not about extremes," Stelmach told a news conference. "It's about putting the best athletes in the best positions."
Doug Horner becomes deputy premier and remains in Advanced Education, while Iris Evans moves from Finance to Intergovernmental Relations.
Mel Knight leaves energy to become minister of Sustainable Resource Development, Hector Goudreau takes Municipal Affairs, and Ray Danyluk moves to Infrastructure.
Len Webber is now minister of Aboriginal Relations.
Zwozdesky says one of his first jobs will be to let people know he's not focusing on privatizing public health care services.
"I'm here to protect a cherished health care system that exists under the Canada Health Act," he told reporters.
"My first priority is to deliver the top performing publicly funded health care system in the Dominion and that's what I'm going to do."
Liberal Opposition Leader David Swann described the new health minister as "a listener" who will be a welcome change from Liepert.
"I have confidence that he will listen both to the evidence and to the professionals in the system that have been good ideas on how it could be better," said Swann.
Swann also said appointing Morton as finance minister will steal some of the thunder from the right-wing Wildrose Alliance, which shares some of Morton's views on fiscal issues.
"We're going to see more fiscal conservatism from Mr. Morton," he said. "This is a clear indication that the Tory party is moving to the right."
NDP Leader Brian Mason says the premier again appears to be snubbing Calgary with his cabinet selections, including the choice of a deputy premier - from the Edmonton area.
Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith says most Albertans will see this as only a minor change.
"A lot of these are the same faces as before, so I don't think there's going to be any real impact overall," Smith said in an interview.
"If you start moving the passengers around in a busted-up, broken-down van, it doesn't change the fact that the van is busted up and broken down."
Recent polls suggest Stelmach's Tories are facing a strong challenge from the upstart Wildrose Alliance, which recently gained two Conservative government defectors.
Liepert faced the brunt of growing discontent among Albertans over health changes and many critics had called for his resignation. Nearly 500 people packed a community meeting in Edmonton this week to voice their protests over cuts to health programs and beds.
But he said Wednesday he's proud of what he accomplished over the last two years as he helped launch "the most aggressive change in health-care delivery in the history of Alberta."
"We've just started the necessary changes in health care," he said. "We've laid the foundation and over the next year or two you're going to see what this health-care house is going to look like."
Travis Davies, spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said he's optimistic about Liepert.
The energy industry hopes to see some policy changes coming from a competitiveness review the government has been doing for the past year, said Davies.
"It is obviously extremely critical and the oil and gas industry is vital to the continued prosperity of Alberta," he said.
Morton's appointment is already sending shockwaves through the public sector unions.
"Morton as finance minister will undoubtedly mean deep cuts to Alberta's public service and needless job losses," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
Friends of Medicare spokesman David Eggen said he hopes that Zwozdesky reverses some of the hospital bed closures that Liepert had previously announced.
"We have half as many hospital beds in this province as we did 15 years ago and the population has grown by at least 50 per cent and that just doesn't add up," said Eggen.
"People wait too long for hospital beds and access to a doctor."
In energy, Liepert will face a backlash from the oilpatch over changes to Alberta's royalty structure, which, coupled with falling oil and natural gas prices, has dried up energy-related investment and jobs in the province.
Stelmach said the new cabinet will help get Alberta out of the recession.
"I have promised Albertans that we will be back in the black in three years and I have not wavered from that commitment," said the premier.
"We are going to take the necessary steps to ensure we emerge from this economic downturn even stronger than before."
The spring sitting of the legislature begins Feb. 4 with a throne speech, with the budget to follow five days later.
1310 Ottawa, Wed Jan 13 2010
Coast Reporter, Wed Jan 13 2010
Oilweek, Wed Jan 13 2010
Byline: Jim MacDonald, Canadian Press