“The negotiations were amazing,” she says. “They would often turn to Canada in a critical way and say, ‘This is what you did – explain it to me: Why did you do that, how does it work, what are the problems?'” She found herself examining how our legal and political systems work, an experience she repeated in other assignments in developing countries over the next several years. “You learn a lot about your own country,” she says.
After returning home, she was determined to test her ideas, but the forum she chose – the federal riding of Calgary West – showed her inexperience in partisan politics. She put idealism ahead of pragmatism by running against Rob Anders, because, as she said later, he “did not speak to the province that I wanted to live in.” (Their divergent views dated back at least to 2001, when Mr. Anders was the sole dissenting vote in making Mr. Mandela an honorary citizen of Canada, on the grounds that the president of South Africa was a terrorist and a Communist.)
For her next political foray she went for a winnable provincial riding: Ralph Klein's former seat in Calgary Elbow. Premier Ed Stelmach immediately appointed the rookie MLA Justice Minister, and then Attorney General. That might seem like challenge enough, but Ms. Redford was still impatient to make real change in the party and the government.
“A lot of people said it must be really difficult to be premier,” she says. On the contrary, she feels “an awful lot more comfortable being part of government now as the premier than I did as a cabinet minister trying to make change from a position around the cabinet table.”
Dog bites politician
For all Ms. Redford's sense of mission, however, election campaigns are often predominantly about dealing with the issues that come out of nowhere, like a feral dog sneaking out of the shadows to bite you on the leg – the MLA-bonus imbroglio being a prime example. How does she find a way to cope?
She says she still abides by the lessons she learned as a teenager, watching Mr. Lougheed in action: “You have to set the plan, do the groundwork, set the foundation and know what direction you want to take, so that the work of government on the policy side can continue, no matter what comes at you. That doesn't mean you are never going to change course. If there is a cataclysmic event, of course, you have to deal with that.”
And that is precisely what she did early this week by publicly changing course about the phantom committees: She had compromised in the emergency caucus meeting before the writ was dropped, agreeing that MLAs should only give back the money they'd received since she became premier. Now, however, she was demanding – not asking – that they refund the money as far back as the 2008 election, if they wanted to sit in her caucus.
“When you are in a political campaign,” she says before climbing back on her campaign bus, “some of these issues become focused very quickly and that is a good thing. I am not beyond admitting when I have made a mistake.”
Her mistake was not sticking to her values in the first place. She'd known the payment system was wrong – she'd said so in her leadership campaign and then set up an inquiry to figure out how to fix it.
“I didn't change my mind. The system was in place well before I was elected, and I wanted to change it and we are going to.”
What she wants now is to move beyond the issue and get back to debating the future of the province.
“Albertans deserve that,” she says.
Sandra Martin is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.
Editor's Note: Alison Redford was an MLA, not an MP, before she ran for the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party. This version has been corrected.