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Alberta's Premier Redford gets wings clipped

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CALGARY -- It has all the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy -- or a sad soap opera. An unpopular and increasingly isolated leader faces palace revolt from hostile courtesans and shadowy enemies lurking within the palace walls.

That sums the continuing melodrama of Alberta Premier Alison Redford's penchant for planes and out-of-pocket travel expenses on the public purse. The plot is thickening after she reluctantly agreed to pay back $45,000 to fly to South Africa for Nelson Mandela's funeral. And another $3,100 for flights for her daughter's friends on government planes.

But not the $9,000 flight from Palm Springs to attend the late Ralph Klein's memorial last spring, when Calgary-based WestJet flies there for $500. Or the use of government planes to attend party fundraisers.

She further enraged voters with an assertion she was entitled to take her daughter on official government business because as Alberta's first female premier, she's the first premier to be a single mom.

That all changed on Friday when a grim-faced Redford faced television cameras and agreed to pay the money back. On March 15, a Saturday, the sullied Redford was read the riot act from members of her caucus at a hastily convened kangaroo court in Edmonton, a meeting described by party insiders as "brutal."

This isn't a three-act play; it's reality television. The saga has eclipsed even the absurd theatre of the Quebec election.

Faced with open calls for her resignation and the threat of mass defections within her own party, Redford relented. She even agreed to a "work plan" to be developed by party brass to correct the error of her ways. This isn't so much a palace revolution as an outright coup.

Lest anyone mistakenly think it was a true act of contrition on her part, public pressure had nothing to do with Redford's about-face. She had already told voters to eat cake, at least half a dozen times in the past three weeks.

No, it was the weight of the party that came to bear. And it is the Progressive Conservative party that calls the shots in Alberta, not the premier or even the electorate. In September it will mark 43 uninterrupted years in office, longer than any government in Canadian history and third in the modern era after communist China and Cuba.

Desperate to hold power, the PC party is increasingly worried it won't be reelected in 2016 with Redford at the helm. This is the same Progressive Conservative party that deposed Ralph Klein and his successor Ed Stelmach for much the same reasons. And it was the party that gave Redford her marching orders, not the public.

In the end, a lone MLA -- Calgary-Foothills' Len Webber -- made good and crossed to the dark side. But not after taking a few parting shots at Redford, calling her "not a nice lady" and a "bully" on national TV.


Such indignities couldn't have come at a worse time for the least popular premier in Canada. With barely 20 per cent approval, Redford has been fighting the tide of public opinion since she was elected two years ago. The latest controversies haven't made it any worse.

It isn't even about her. It's true, some folks don't like Alison the Red because she's an exceptionally sharp woman who talks like a lawyer. In fact, she is a lawyer and one of the most qualified people to hold the premier's post since Peter Lougheed.

She certainly isn't Ralph Klein, who also took liberties with government planes because he wasn't allowed to smoke on commercial flights. He got away with it because he was Ralph, and Alison lacks his charm.

It shows Albertans aren't sticklers -- $45,000 isn't going to bankrupt the provincial treasury. But it's the principle. Fiscally conservative Albertans just don't like their leaders playing loose with the public purse.

Entitlement is a word Webber and others have used to describe Redford, but it's a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Webber is the son of Neil Webber, a longtime cabinet minister and confidant to ex-premier Lougheed.

Entitlement is also a word that could describe his actions, after he was unceremoniously bounced from cabinet when Redford was elected in 2012. Like Redford, he's been a party insider for virtually his entire life. His nose was already out of joint. In any event, he was going to jump ship and run for the federal Tories instead.

So what we have in Alberta isn't a political dynasty as much as hereditary succession, with the heirs of the last generation squabbling over the spoils. And as the backdoor bickering spills out in public, the walls on Canada's longest and most successful political machine may finally be crumbling.


Eye on Alberta columnist Shaun Polczer's work has appeared in local and national newspapers, including the Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal and National Post, in addition to international publications in 99 countries.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 19, 2014 A9

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