It has been anything but a smooth ride for Alison Redford since leading her Progressive Conservative Party to a come-from-behind victory in last April’s Alberta election. From expense scandals to policy flip-flops, the Premier has seemingly battled one controversy after another since her big win.
Today, however, Ms. Redford is facing a problem of an entirely different class and magnitude, one threatening to erupt into a full-blown political crisis for her administration.
Ms. Redford stands accused of being in contempt of the legislature for deliberately misleading it. She is facing calls to step down from office until the allegations are investigated.
“This is absolutely the worst scandal to hit the premier’s office in our lifetime,” Wildrose Party critic Rob Anderson declared this week, before invoking Toronto’s mayor by way of comparison. “This makes the Rob Ford thing look like child’s play.”
The controversy involves a lucrative contract awarded to the law firm of Ms. Redford’s ex-husband while she was minister of Justice in late 2010. Since their divorce many years ago, she has maintained a close relationship with her ex-husband, Robert Hawkes, who led her transition team when Ms. Redford won the Tory leadership in 2011.
The Premier has repeatedly denied playing any role in choosing International Recovery Lawyers – her ex-husband’s firm – to represent the province in its $10-billion suit against “big tobacco.” It is a suit that represents a potential payout into the hundreds of millions of dollars for International Recovery, which is working on a contingency fee basis.
“I was not the Justice minister at the time the government made that decision,” Ms. Redford has insisted when asked in the legislature about this matter. She maintains the decision was made by her successor, Verlyn Olson, after she stepped down to seek her party’s leadership.
That seemed fine until the Wildrose Party got its hands on e-mails that appeared to contradict those statements. A Dec. 14, 2010, note from Ms. Redford has her saying that her ex-husband’s law firm was the best choice of the three firms bidding for the contract. A month later, a provincial Justice Department memo stated: “Shortly before Christmas, Ms. Redford selected International Tobacco Recovery lawyers.”
And then the current Justice Minister, Jonathan Denis, told reporters that Ms. Redford had made the decision but it wasn’t a conflict because she was dealing with an ex-spouse. (Later in the day, the government’s story changed and former Justice minister Veryln Olson said it was he, not Ms. Redford, who made the decision.)
The government is trying to insist that the deal wasn’t a deal until a final contract was negotiated and signed with International Tobacco, which didn’t happen until after Ms. Redford had left Justice. On the surface, however, that looks like pretty thin ice on which to be skating.
Technically, an ex-spouse is not someone that a politician can be in a conflict of interest in dealing with under the province’s conflict legislation, although it seems that given Ms. Redford’s relationship with Mr. Hawkes, recusing herself from the process would have been the prudent thing to do. But that isn’t the big issue here. The big issue is she told the legislature she had nothing to do with the decision when memos and e-mails suggest the contrary.
NDP Leader Brian Mason said it clearly: “There is overwhelming evidence that the Premier lied.”
On Friday, Ms. Redford was scrummed by reporters on the matter. The best she could do was to say she was “disappointed by the level of discourse” in the legislature, and that Albertans wanted politicians to be talking about other issues. And no Albertan more than Alison Redford.
She said she had no idea where the issue was heading. “This is politics and I’ll leave it at that.”
It is politics that Alberta hasn’t seen in decades. The Premier of the province is discovering what it’s like to have a ferocious and power-hungry opposition staring you down in the legislature every day. That’s something that Alberta governments aren’t used to. And an opposition armed with a politically debilitating scandal is an even more nasty and unpleasant group with which to deal.
The Speaker of the legislature is expected to rule on the opposition’s contempt motion next week. This is far from the “silly” matter Ms. Redford suggested it is on Friday. In fact, Rob Anderson may be right. This could make the Rob Ford thing look like child’s play.