EDMONTON - Alberta Premier Jim Prentice promised Wednesday to do away with government cronyism and defended himself against renewed criticism that he has broken that dictum by hiring his campaign co-manager, Jay Hill.
Prentice said hiring Hill last week as one of three new senior trade representatives is different.
"These people were carefully selected as the most qualified people for the position," Prentice told a legislature news conference.
"These are three people who are very close to cabinet (and) to the premier in terms of executing the agenda of the government.
"I don't view them as comparable to someone who is appointed to a board or an agency."
Prentice delivered more details on the legislation he plans to introduce in the fall session to eradicate the spending and entitlement scandals that mortally wounded the administration of former premier Alison Redford.
Prentice said his new Accountability Act will put an end to so-called sweetheart pay and severance deals for political staffers.
There will be new rules on handing out sole-source government contracts.
A pre-qualified list of companies will be struck that can be hired by the government when emergency situations don't allow time to solicit competing bids.
There will also be rules to prevent "stacking," whereby a company receives so many small untendered contracts it then becomes, in essence, one big untendered payout.
Prentice said his cabinet will appoint people to boards and agencies strictly on merit and not on political or personal ties.
He said that doesn't mean people with political contacts are automatically excluded.
"Some people may have been involved in a political party in the past. Could be one of a number of political parties," said Prentice.
"That should not preclude them from serving in a position of public trust. But it should also not be the criteria by which they are selected."
Last week, along with the Hill appointment, Prentice also named former Conservative MP Rob Merrifield to be Alberta's senior trade representative for the U.S.
Merrifield publicly supported Prentice during his leadership campaign.
Career diplomat Ron Hoffmann was named to a similar post for Asia.
NDP Leader Brian Mason said it's clear that Prentice will be four-square against favouritism once his favourites are in place.
"We will be keeping a close eye on further appointments that may take place before the (Accountability) Act is implemented," said Mason.
Wildrose critic Rob Anderson was equally skeptical.
"In his very first days in office, Mr. Prentice made a series of patronage appointments for his campaign staff, friends and inner circle, yet somehow we’re supposed to believe he means business on introducing merit-based hiring and ending patronage," said Anderson.
Fixing entitlements was one of the cornerstone policies of Prentice's leadership campaign, which culminated with his first ballot victory on Sept. 6 to become the new Progressive Conservative party leader and premier.
Redford quit as premier in March, and resigned from politics altogether in August due to revelations she abused public resources for personal gain.
Auditor General Merwan Saher reported that Redford used government planes for personal use and even flew her daughter and her daughter's friends around at taxpayers' expense.
Redford was also found to have been constructing a pricey penthouse retreat for her use atop a government building.
It was one of many scandals that sent the Tories plummeting in the polls earlier this year and evaporated support for Redford in caucus and the party.
The pay revelations fell like hammer blows: Redford's chief of staff Farouk Adatia was pulling in $357,000 in salary and benefits in 2013; Gary Mar, one-time Redford rival, was making $322,000 in salary and benefits as Alberta's trade representative in Hong Kong.
When Redford resigned as premier, nine members of her inner circle went with her, pocketing $1.1 million in severance.
The Tories have also been criticized under Redford for doling out more than $200 million in untendered contracts to respond quickly to the floods that devastated parts of Calgary and southern Alberta in 2013.