A few days after she won the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party last October, Alison Redford had an appointment to call Prime Minister Stephen Harper. “Well, Alison,” he drawled – and here, in her retelling, she lowers her voice and flashes a mischievous smile – “when we were sitting in Jim Hawkes's basement, who ever thought we would be having this conversation?”
Who, indeed? Back in the mid-1980s, Mr. Harper was a parliamentary aide to Calgary-West MP Jim Hawkes; Ms. Redford, already a veteran politico, was engaged to his boss's son, Robert Hawkes. “I don't know if he would want me to repeat this conversation, but it is kind of fun,” she allows in an interview in her suite of offices two weeks ago at the Alberta Legislature, a massive Beaux Arts edifice that dominates the landscape of central Edmonton.
Connections are one thing. What you do with them is what matters in the political arena. She and Mr. Harper have both made an effort, she says, to reconnect and to build on “their natural rapport” to get “constructive things” done for the province. Despite their differing brands of conservative ideology, Ms. Redford says, “both of us know that it is very important for Alberta and Ottawa to have a strong relationship.”
While the two are collegial now, Ms. Redford can't recall if Mr. Harper attended her first wedding in August, 1985. And she shows no signs of following the tortuous path he took to 24 Sussex. Such was the drama surrounding conservative politics in those days that Mr. Harper chose twice to run for office against his old mentor Mr. Hawkes, losing once and then finally heading to Parliament as a Reform MP in 1993. Originally a Liberal supporter, Mr. Harper flirted with several political persuasions before the 2003 merger of right-wing parties in the new Conservative Party.
No one has ever needed a dance card to keep track of Ms. Redford's political affiliations. Although she says she supported the merger, she has been an unwavering “progressive” Conservative – a Red Tory, by many definitions – since she was 16 and Peter Lougheed was premier of Alberta.
“He was a larger-than-life figure,” she says – he represented the same values and attitudes that she had absorbed around the dinner table from her grandfather. When she decided to get involved in politics, she phoned the PC party “because that was the party that Mr. Lougheed led.”
Outside Alberta, people tend to think that Ms. Redford came out of nowhere to win the leadership of the Alberta PCs, but she has been mentored for decades (she is now 47) by icons of the provincial and federal parties, including Mr. Lougheed, Joe Clark and Jean Charest – yes, that Jean Charest who once was a Tory and has been the Liberal Premier of Quebec since 2003.
Today, they engage in the kinds of conversations between Alberta and Quebec that haven't occurred since Mr. Lougheed retired from politics. “We are filled with joy to see how this young woman has progressed to become Premier of Alberta,” Mr.Charest said before delivering a speech on March 5 in Toronto. “We did a small press conference afterwards and she spoke in French. The media's jaws dropped,” he said, “and the first tweet I had afterwards was: ‘Can she coach the Habs?' ” Pausing dramatically, Mr. Charest answered his own rhetorical question: “No. She is busy.”
That she is. Not only is she using her Rolodex to build a national conversation with other premiers, she is running hard to become the first woman elected premier of the resource-rich province. That may be the toughest item on her agenda: A little more than a year ago, she was a rookie MLA and Minister of Justice when she decided to contest the leadership of the Alberta party after Premier Ed Stelmach announced he was stepping down. Not one cabinet minister supported her leadership bid, which shows how at odds she was with the old PC party Mr. Stelmach had inherited from former Calgary Mayor Ralph Klein.
“Mr. Klein came along and he reverted the party backward to what I call the old Social Credit days, when Alberta was the whole focus and it wasn't a cross-Canada focus,” said Mr. Lougheed in an interview. Today, Premier Redford's progressive outlook is turning that tide back again, he said, “and I think that is exceptionally important.”