Tom Flanagan is a professor emeritus of political science and distinguished scholar at the School of Public Policy, University of Calgary. He is a former campaign manager for conservative parties.
“Yippee yi oh, Yippee yi aye / Ghost riders in the sky.” – Johnny Cash
Former Alberta premier Alison Redford has been savagely swarmed in the media, but the mobbing was more demeaning to Alberta than it was to her.
It began with a leaked story from a provincial Auditor-General’s inquiry into Ms. Redford’s use of government aircraft, an inquiry that she herself commissioned when she was still premier. (Alberta, unique among Canadian provinces, has a fleet of four aircraft for the business use of government officials and politicians.)
According to the leak, Ms. Redford’s staff had been booking “ghost passengers” on flights so that no one else could be accommodated, thus allowing her to fly alone with her daughter and perhaps a close staffer or two. Anyone in politics should be cautious about leaked stories, yet Ms. Redford was immediately denounced by the three men seeking to replace her as leader of the Progressive Conservative party and premier of Alberta.
Two of these men are former cabinet colleagues and one is a long-time friend. Yet they vied with each other in proposing hypothetical punishments, such as expulsion from the PC caucus or even investigation by the RCMP – all this on the basis of a leaked story without any corroborating evidence. Could not one of them have said, “When I’m premier, I will always follow the rule of law and insist on fair play for all Albertans. Before talking about penalties, let’s see if there’s anything to penalize. Let’s wait for the Auditor-General’s report, which is coming in a few weeks.”
It is impossible to judge Ms. Redford’s actions without more information. Are the allegations about ghost riders even true? If they are true, did she know anything about them? (She says she didn’t.) What was the process for reserving places on the aircraft? Did anything change in Ms. Redford’s time in office, or were old protocols still in force? Without answers to such questions, you can’t arrive at a sensible conclusion – though that won’t stop populists from grabbing pitchforks and boiling up the tar and feathers.
You would expect Ms. Redford to be condemned by the opposition parties; but these statements from within her own party, from the future party leader and premier of Alberta, signalled a general pile-on in the media – by politicians, reporters, columnists, letter-writers, and talk-show callers. After the deluge, a public opinion poll evaluated Ms. Redford as the worst premier in Alberta’s history. Ironically, the same poll rated Ralph Klein as the best, even though he was reputed to use government airplanes as cavalierly as Ms. Redford – but who remembers those headlines from 10 years ago?
Perhaps worst of all is the idea of calling in the RCMP. The police, in my view, should only investigate politicians when there is strong evidence that they have committed actual crimes, such as taking bribes and stealing public money. We don’t need the police poking into possible violations of internal government rules, for which political remedies already exist. Indeed, Ms. Redford has been punished by losing the confidence of her caucus and being forced to resign as premier. Using the RCMP to pursue her further would be a creepy imitation of how authoritarian regimes treat fallen leaders.
If the Three Wise Men contesting for the premier’s job really want to make a positive contribution, let them promise to get rid of the Alberta Air Transportation Service. All other provinces have found it’s cheaper to charter occasional aircraft as needed rather than maintain their own fleet. The planes are an unjustifiable expense, especially when Alberta has been running a deficit for the past seven years. Leave Ms. Redford alone and focus on the real issue.
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