April 19, 2019

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Opinion

Alberta serves as cautionary tale

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/11/2014 (1626 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It's been a dangerous year for provincial premiers. Four premiers have lost their positions and Manitoba's Premier Greg Selinger is facing an internal party challenge that may yet see him join those ranks. Alison Redford's resignation as premier of Alberta stands out as the most prominent departure.

The story of Redford's collapse is a familiar one as falling support for the party in the polls and precipitous declines in the premier's approval ratings opened the door to criticism from within party ranks that culminated in a leadership change.

This must sound familiar to Selinger right now.

Less than a year ago, Redford received a rousing endorsement from Alberta's Progressive Conservative party. Elected as party leader in 2011 with little support from her legislative colleagues, Redford led her party to a surprise victory in the 2012 provincial election many thought would be won by the opposition Wildrose party. She then went on to win the support of 77 per cent of the Tories who voted in a mandatory party leadership review in November 2013.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/11/2014 (1626 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It's been a dangerous year for provincial premiers. Four premiers have lost their positions and Manitoba's Premier Greg Selinger is facing an internal party challenge that may yet see him join those ranks. Alison Redford's resignation as premier of Alberta stands out as the most prominent departure.

The story of Redford's collapse is a familiar one as falling support for the party in the polls and precipitous declines in the premier's approval ratings opened the door to criticism from within party ranks that culminated in a leadership change.

This must sound familiar to Selinger right now.

Less than a year ago, Redford received a rousing endorsement from Alberta's Progressive Conservative party. Elected as party leader in 2011 with little support from her legislative colleagues, Redford led her party to a surprise victory in the 2012 provincial election many thought would be won by the opposition Wildrose party. She then went on to win the support of 77 per cent of the Tories who voted in a mandatory party leadership review in November 2013.

Just four months later, she announced her resignation citing "party and caucus infighting."

Redford's fate demonstrates that while support from caucus is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for winning the leadership of a political party in Canada, it is essential to retaining the position. Despite the powers that accrue to a premier, an inability to command the support of a loyal caucus creates huge problems and affords the opposition with ammunition that can be used to destabilize and embarrass the government. Party and caucus loyalty is severely strained when questions about the ability of a leader to win the next election emerge.

Questions surrounding the premier's fate overshadowed the government's agenda in the first quarter of 2014. A speech from the throne and a provincial budget were almost lost in the shuffle. Opposition parties utilized question period to keep pressure on the premier and used dissent within the PC party to their advantage. The government was unable to focus attention on its future plans for Alberta and controversy about the reporting of provincial deficits and infrastructure spending were overshadowed by concern over the relatively small amounts of public money spent on executive travel and whether the premier retained the support of her party and caucus.

Redford's fate can be traced to issues surrounding expenses incurred by the premier's attendance at Nelson Mandela's funeral in South Africa. Redford had worked with Mandela in the past and was asked to be part of the Canadian delegation. When it came to light she had spent $45,000 on this travel, concerns were raised about the efficient use of public resources, particularly since Nova Scotia's premier had made the same trip for less than $1,000. Redford apologized for the cost but initially indicated she would not repay the expenses.

Controversy over these expenses dogged the government and opposition parties used the opportunity to present a populist criticism focusing on her travel expenses in a period of spending cuts. Redford's own party added to her problems. A backbench MLA, whose appointment to cabinet had been previously rescinded by the premier, claimed the spending was not consistent with Albertan values.

More issues relating to travel expenses for partisan reasons, as well as trips involving the premier and her daughter, emerged and fed the narrative of entitlement the opposition advanced. Redford attempted to regain control of the issue by asking the auditor general to investigate travel spending and compliance with regulations and deciding to repay the expenses for the South Africa trip.

These responses proved insufficient, and yet another backbench MLA announced he would be leaving caucus and critiqued the premier's leadership style. Redford met the party's executive to talk about the way forward and was allegedly given a 'work plan' for the future and had her decision to appoint a new executive director for the party overturned.

The premier's problems were further exacerbated when an associate minister in her administration resigned from cabinet, making reference to entitlement and the difficulty of change. Other Conservative MLAs expressed concerns and speculation that as many as 10 MLAs were considering leaving the caucus to sit as independents appeared in the media.

In question period, the premier was asked directly whether she had enough support in the party to continue in office. Party officials added to the pressure and meetings of constituency association presidents to discuss their confidence in the premier were scheduled. Without clear support from her party, and with the opposition able to use dissent within the governing party as evidence of the validity of their critiques, the premier was left with little choice but to resign.

There are certain similarities between Redford and what Selinger is facing now. And her case can be viewed as a cautionary tale for the NDP and its future in Manitoba.


David Stewart is a professor of political science at the university of Calgary. His research focuses on provincial politics, parties and leaders.

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