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One year later, Alison Redford looks back: ‘I’m a polarizing figure’ Add to ...

Former Alberta premier Alison Redford speaks for the first time since her resignation last year about her caucus revolt, the ‘Sky Palace’ and flying with her daughter

When she became premier in 2011, Alison Redford was seen as the bright, accomplished face of a modern Alberta. By the time she resigned a year ago, she had become the poster girl for lavish spending and entitlement.

Former Alberta premier Alison Redford in Calgary, Alberta, March 17, 2015. (Todd Korol / For The Globe and Mail)
'I'm a polarizing figure'
In an interview with Gary Mason, Alison Redford speaks out for the first time about the controversies, the caucus revolt – and why she believes
her gender played a role in her downfall

Breaking her silence after a year in political exile, former Alberta premier Alison Redford admits she is a “polarizing figure” who was forced from office after losing the trust and confidence of her party and caucus.

While accepting some responsibility for the controversy that swirled around her, Ms. Redford charged in an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail that she was the subject of a virulent and corrosive smear campaign she believes was propagated by her political Opposition but eventually included people in her own party.

(Dave Chan / For The Globe and Mail)

On reflection

I didn’t understand it at the time but I understand it now: I’m a polarizing figure. I didn’t think that I was. I came from a position as a mediator, working on peace negotiations … but for whatever reason, in particularly this province, I’m a polarizing figure. And maybe I became more of a polarizing figure over time and that’s probably true.

After a long stretch of soul-searching, she was reluctant to identify specific mistakes she made, but did point to a range of other factors contributing to her difficulties, from her gender to back-stabbing in her own caucus. And for all the political turmoil she generated, she maintains that many of the allegations against her were groundless.

“I didn’t understand it at the time but I understand it now: I’m a polarizing figure,” said Ms. Redford, looking more relaxed than she ever did in office. “I didn’t think that I was. I came from a position as a mediator, working on peace negotiations … but for whatever reason, in particularly this province, I’m a polarizing figure. And maybe I became more of a polarizing figure over time and that’s probably true.”

Ms. Redford announced her resignation on March 19, 2014, after enduring months of criticism, mostly linked to allegations of abuse of government aircraft and lavish spending habits. The political furor caused by the $45,000 price tag to attend Nelson Mandela’s funeral would become the catalyst for an air-of-entitlement narrative that would define her administration and fatally damage her relationship with the public and Tory colleagues.

In the course of a more than three-hour-long conversation, Ms. Redford reflected on such contentious topics as trips her daughter took on government planes, what she knew about the infamous “Sky Palace” being planned in Edmonton, and whether the RCMP investigation looking into her spending habits was politically motivated.

Once seen as the bright, accomplished face of a modern Alberta when elected as the Progressive Conservative Party’s first female leader in 2011, Ms. Redford said in her first comments since stepping down that she has spent the last year in deep introspection. The period of self-analysis, she concedes, was precipitated both by the events of the previous few years and the recent arrival of a milestone birthday – 50. She has travelled, read and indulged in pursuits she’s never had time for in a busy career – like baking.

“There have been some tough times the last year for sure,” she said, sitting in a lounge at a Calgary golf club. “I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting and thinking, trying to understand how I was feeling. I tried to understand why people were saying what they were saying about me; not whether they liked me or not. I spent a lot of time thinking about who I am as I was approaching 50. What I wanted out of my life. What my life has been so far.”

Alison Redford is photographed on Jan. 18, 2012. (Jason Franson/For The Globe and Mail)

On being a woman leader

You go back to the ’70s and ’80s, if the man is tough he’s strong and if the woman is tough she’s a “b” – it’s just always been like that,” she said. “I’m not saying everybody liked me. That’s certainly not the case. Or had to like me. Then I ask the question: Do they like every male politician? Why is like or not like part of it. It’s a complicated issue and I don’t think we’ve sorted it out.

Looking back on her premiership – which stretched from Oct. 7, 2011, to March 23, 2014, when she officially left office – Ms. Redford said many of her problems started from her leadership win. She beat out the party hierarchy’s preferred candidate, Gary Mar, with the support of only one member of the Tory caucus. Asked if that would become a factor when she began to encounter turbulence on the political front, Ms. Redford said, “Absolutely.”

“I was not the establishment choice and was not expected to win and quite frankly I was a fairly young, new politician and mother of a 10-year-old and a pretty independent woman,” Ms. Redford said. “So there were lots of things for people to try and figure out and understand and lots of change at once.”

She said there were people in the caucus unsettled by that change “and uncomfortable from the very beginning with the choice that was made through the leadership selection process. But that’s politics.”

As Ms. Redford’s problems proliferated and her polling numbers sank, grumbling inside the Tory ranks grew. There were complaints about an acerbic leadership style; she was seen by some as a bully. When Calgary Tory MLA Len Webber resigned in March to sit as an independent he said publicly of Ms. Redford: “She’s just really not a nice lady.… I cannot work for an individual who treats people poorly.”

Some suggested Mr. Webber was bitter about losing his cabinet seat. Deputy premier Dave Hancock called him a “sad man.” Today, Ms. Redford views the incident through a different lens. She said women in “political roles are perceived differently, judged differently and I think are treated differently.”

“You go back to the ’70s and ’80s, if the man is tough he’s strong and if the woman is tough she’s a “b” – it’s just always been like that,” she said. “I’m not saying everybody liked me. That’s certainly not the case. Or had to like me. Then I ask the question: Do they like every male politician? Why is like or not like part of it. It’s a complicated issue and I don’t think we’ve sorted it out.”

Ms. Redford was adamant, however, that people not get the impression she believes her political fate was sealed because she’s a woman. “I don’t believe that and I really want to be clear about that.”

Deputy Premier Doug Horner applauds as Alberta Premier Alison Redford announces her new cabinet team in Edmonton, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

On being an unknown

I was not the establishment choice and was not expected to win and quite frankly I was a fairly young, new politician and mother of a 10-year-old and a pretty independent woman. So there were lots of things for people to try and figure out and understand and lots of change at once.

Throughout much of Ms. Redford’s reign, there seemed to be constant rumours relating to her behaviour, tales that seemed to pick up steam as her problems mushroomed and she appeared more politically vulnerable. They were repeated by government MLAs, cabinet ministers, Opposition members, Tory party officials. All of them were salacious and whispered to reporters, who ran them past Ms. Redford’s communications staff, who had to inform the boss.

One that was almost mythologized was a story about how Ms. Redford had supposedly slapped a female security official at an airport. “I know I heard that one,” she said. It had become so widespread that her advisers told her she needed to address the matter with caucus. She didn’t. “I was gobsmacked.”

“I know some of the rumours and they’re ridiculous,” said Ms. Redford, admitting one was that she often drank to excess. “There were affair rumours too. It’s simply not reality.”

She said in the legislature she faced a political Opposition intent on destroying her credibility. “There were political staffers who work for the Opposition, and maybe even for some of our own members, who know how to use technology and set up accounts and start these rumours and people buy into them. But they were untrue. I would go out and have a drink with people but there was never a problem.”

When asked how she reacted when she was told that people in her own party were participating in the campaign, she said she was originally surprised. “I had the impression we were pulling in the same direction, but when I was told who I was less surprised. It was difficult for some people to work in an environment where we didn’t do things the same way as in the past.”

The final days of Ms. Redford’s time as premier were no fun. The pressure to make a gracious exit was growing daily. There were extraordinary meetings of the party executive to deal with her embattled leadership. There was a media throng waiting at caucus and cabinet meetings in anticipation of the next resignation. As a student of politics, she had seen this movie before. She’d seen it happen to Joe Clark and others. And once those dynamics develop, she said, they are almost impossible to reverse.

“The reason you are the leader of the party is because you have the confidence of the caucus and the party and if that starts to change and can’t be corrected then in my mind the writing is on the wall,” she said. “Certainly, many people have said you should have stuck it out, but that wouldn’t have been good for anybody. It was not a constructive environment. It wasn’t going to allow us to continue doing the work we had done. It’s not healthy for anyone”

Alberta Premier Alison Redford arrives at the Alberta Legislature with her daughter, Sarah in Edmonton on March 20, 2014, the day after her resignation. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

On travelling with her daughter

Other premiers before me travelled with their wife all the time and that always seemed to be acceptable and never the subject of public comment. My husband never travelled on a government plane. He never did anything with us at government expense. It was completely separate. Those times that Sarah and I were together certainly didn’t at all compare to the amount of time that even other ministers were travelling with their spouse in those same circumstances, so I don’t know what that was about.

So on the morning of March 19 she decided to quit, making a dramatic announcement in the rotunda of the Alberta Legislature around dinner time.

The question many Albertans will have, of course, is how much responsibility Ms. Redford accepts for what happened?

“It would be ridiculous to say that I ended up in this circumstance and had nothing to do with it,” she said. “I’ve reflected on an awful lot of these things. Nobody is perfect and never in my life have I been perfect nor ever held myself out to be perfect.” What would she have done differently? “I’m not sure that I can answer that in specifics,” she said.

However, the former premier did say she pushed policy change that made some in her caucus unhappy. As examples, she cited efforts to make government more transparent and initiatives such as the public reporting of expense accounts, whistle-blower legislation for public servants and even compensation for MLAs working on government committees.

“I don’t know if it was the decisions that were made or the speed at which they were made, but those were difficult for people to accept and I can only say that I’m disappointed in that and disappointed in myself for not understanding that maybe it was necessary to approach some of these things differently,” said the former premier.

“I’m sure there is a lineup of 500 people who can give you a specific thing that I did wrong and they want me to say sorry for,” she continued. “I’m sure there’s some I would probably agree with, but there’s probably a lot I wouldn’t agree with too.”

Ms. Redford accepted that the Mandela expense story – she ultimately agreed to pay back the money for the trip – would lead to broader claims she felt “entitled” and inspire nicknames such as Queen Alison. She feels badly that was the impression some of her actions left.

“To me it was never about that [living a lavish existence at taxpayers’ expense] and if people didn’t understand that, that’s my fault,” she said. “And I apologize for that.”

Ms. Redford endured criticism for dozens of trips her daughter took on government planes, on a few occasions with a friend. The former Calgary-Elbow MLA defended them, saying the job of premier demands that you’re working virtually all of the time, often away from home. But she was also a mother, she said.

“Other premiers before me travelled with their wife all the time and that always seemed to be acceptable and never the subject of public comment,” Ms. Redford said. “My husband never travelled on a government plane. He never did anything with us at government expense. It was completely separate. Those times that Sarah and I were together certainly didn’t at all compare to the amount of time that even other ministers were travelling with their spouse in those same circumstances, so I don’t know what that was about.

“The reality is that I was the mother of a child and when I was elected premier everybody knew I was the mother of a child and I think it was expected and presumed I would be spending time with her.”

Alberta Premier Alison Redford arrives at a meeting of the provincial PC Party executive in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, March 15, 2014. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)

On the apartment

I became aware at some point of a discussion about making it more into living space and I also know my staff told infrastructure to stop that and that was all I ever knew. There was one discussion when someone said to me: ‘You’re going to be the premier when this is done, what colour paint do you want on the walls,’ and stuff like that. That was it.

As for plans to build a penthouse apartment in a downtown government building in Edmonton – dubbed the Sky Palace – Ms. Redford said the idea for some kind of space for the premier in Edmonton was in the works as far back as Ralph Klein’s days as premier. The idea was the subject of a legislative committee, she said, recalling deliberations about the matter when she was justice minister in 2010.

“I became aware at some point of a discussion about making it more into living space and I also know my staff told infrastructure to stop that and that was all I ever knew,” she said, contradicting reports she personally ordered the penthouse. “There was one discussion when someone said to me: ‘You’re going to be the premier when this is done, what colour paint do you want on the walls,’ and stuff like that. That was it.”

Last year, an Alberta Justice internal review concluded the former premier could face criminal charges if allegations contained in an earlier auditor general’s report related to her use of government aircraft and travel spending habits were proven by an RCMP investigation. Supporters of the former premier called it a political witch-hunt.

Asked if she thought the decision to involve the Mounties was politically motivated, Ms. Redford said, “Oh, I think there is a political element involving all that stuff. I think it would be quite disingenuous for people to think there wasn’t.”

Recently, the RCMP cleared Ms. Redford completely.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford announces her resignation in Edmonton on Wednesday March 19, 2014.(THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

On reading the signs

The reason you are the leader of the party is because you have the confidence of the caucus and the party and if that starts to change and can’t be corrected then in my mind the writing is on the wall. Certainly, many people have said you should have stuck it out, but that wouldn’t have been good for anybody. It was not a constructive environment. It wasn’t going to allow us to continue doing the work we had done. It’s not healthy for anyone

One of the low points of the last year came shortly after she resigned from office. She took the advice of friends who suggested she go to her family’s condominium in Palm Springs to decompress. It wasn’t long, however, before she found herself, and often her daughter, being followed by photographers. One picture of the two riding bikes together appeared on the front page of an Alberta newspaper. She was snapped eating in restaurants. Her activities became fodder on Twitter.

“It was terrible and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” she said. “I really hope it doesn’t happen to anyone else the way it happened to me and my daughter.”

But that is behind her now. Ms. Redford said Sarah, 13, is doing fine. The former premier, meantime, says she’s ready to get back to work. While’s she learned to make a mean pie crust, it’s time to turn her attention to more intellectual pursuits. Conflict rules prevented her from getting into the job market right away, she says, plus she needed time to herself.

She doesn’t know what she’ll do. There have not been any job offers or board invitations, likely as a result of the way she exited from office. Work in the energy sector interests her, as does something in the area of human rights, where she distinguished herself as a lawyer working for the United Nations and the federal government in many of the world’s most hostile conflict zones. She’d like to mentor young girls on leadership. She wouldn’t be averse to working abroad – although, she says, Calgary will always be home.

Despite the troubles of her time in office, Ms. Redford said she still considers it one of her greatest honours.

“It was an absolute privilege to be premier of this province and to meet the people who love their lives, and their families and their communities,” she said. “There are so many people who work hard to help their neighbours and are working hard to make life better for other people, and I was always honoured to meet them and try to help them in the work they were doing.”

And for everything she went through, she says there have been days she’s missed it.

“Talking public policy was exciting and I miss that,” she said. “All that other stuff, not so much.”

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