Alison Redford is facing internal strife over her ability to lead the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, less than a year after winning a commanding majority government in a hard-fought election against the Wildrose Party.
A grumbling electorate and a plummeting approval rating for the Premier have introduced a new degree of uncertainty into a leadership test she will face in the fall. Many of more than 15 party sources – including caucus members, former MLAs and party insiders who spoke to The Globe and Mail on condition of anonymity – are warning that the Premier needs to take dramatic steps to turn her political fortunes around before the leadership review. If she doesn’t, she runs the risk of losing the party support she needs to govern.
Ms. Redford, who does not face a general election until 2016, must shore up support among her fellow Progressive Conservatives ahead of the November vote – a critical hurdle that will trigger a leadership contest if the majority of delegates vote against her.
These internal challenges don’t seem to be lost on the Premier. After her oil-sands sales trip to Washington, D.C., last week, Ms. Redford was operating on two hours sleep at her annual Calgary fundraiser on Thursday.
But late into the evening, even after most people had finished their steaks, the Premier was still working the crowd of more than 1,400, moving from table to table in the voluminous downtown conference hall to shake hands with supporters.
Meet-and-greets of this sort are standard, but many party insiders say these public displays of approachability have become all the more crucial for Ms. Redford leading up to the leadership review when former and current MLAs, Conservative MPs, riding and youth delegates and party board members will all have a say on her job performance.
“She’s got a fair amount of work to do. And a lot of it has to be in her leadership,” said stalwart party fundraiser John Chomiak, who said he is a supporter of the Premier. A contentious deficit budget and an approval rating that pollster Angus Reid says stands at 29 per cent means the Premier needs to find ways of turning her political fortunes around between now and the leadership review, he said.
“The entire Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta has to be concerned,” Mr. Chomiak said.
But already, he said, Ms. Redford has made some positive changes. “She’s adjusted to be more friendly, more open, more communicating with the public.”
Ms. Redford has had to manage the difficult fiscal issue of the crude differential, which sees Alberta heavy-oil producers paying a discounted price for their product – a situation that has had a major impact on provincial revenues.
No organized campaign against Ms. Redford is apparent, say party supporters. Strategist Stephen Carter, who helped Ms. Redford go from underdog to party leader and served for a time as her chief of staff, said it’s “awfully early” to be talking leadership review, pointing out that the mood of voters and the party can “change dramatically” by November.
But the Alberta PC Party, which has won majority governments for more than four decades, has a history of being fickle when it comes to its recent leaders. Wildly popular former premier Ralph Klein – who had regularly enjoyed leadership-review approvals of 90 per cent or higher – eventually overstayed his welcome and was pushed from office with a 55-per-cent leadership-review vote in 2006.
With a strong get-out-the-vote effort from his loyal MLAs, former premier Ed Stelmach got a 77-per-cent approval rating in the 2009 review. However, facing low polling numbers and dissent within his cabinet, he announced he would resign 15 months later.
Ms. Redford has refused to set a benchmark for success. But Mr. Chomiak, who has been with the party since the days of Peter Lougheed, said she needs to get more than 70-per-cent support or “the knives will start coming out.”
In March, Ms. Redford rankled both sides of the political divide when she unveiled a budget with a ballooning deficit, plunging the province back into debt, while cutting some services and backtracking on key campaign promises. While fiscal conservatives fumed about the province’s finances, a few hundred Mount Royal University students and staff marched to Ms. Redford’s office in Calgary last week to protest against cuts to postsecondary education.
“Who are we going to appeal to in the next election? The mushy middle doesn’t get you anywhere,” said one long-time Tory organizer.
An Angus Reid poll released this month ranked her as the country’s third least popular premier, pegging her approval rating at 29 per cent. That’s a dramatic drop from 47 per cent in December, and the 55-per-cent support she garnered last August.
Calgary public-opinion consultant Janet Brown also said she has found a “pretty serious collapse” in support for the Premier in a short time frame, which could impact her leadership review. She pointed to the “darkest days” of Mr. Stelmach’s government for reference.
“It took Ed three years to get to that level and it’s taken her less than a year,” Ms. Brown said. “There are forces for and against her already getting a plan in place.”
However, Ms. Redford has a number of factors on her side, including no clear heir. There may also be a pragmatic reason for party members to support the incumbent. The party is broke and leadership races are expensive. After going all out in last April’s election, the Tories finished the year with a debt of $784,767 according to financial filings with Elections Alberta. By comparison, the official Opposition Wildrose had $403,361 in net assets.
Speaking to reporters last week, Ms. Redford listed off her government’s accomplishments since the election, including a tenable labour deal with the province’s teachers, a new direction for the province’s postsecondary institutions, and a budget that “transforms” the province. She dismissed the Angus Reid poll results.
“There’s ups and downs in politics.”
There’s no doubt Ms. Redford has focused much of her efforts as leader in making Alberta’s case on Keystone in Washington. Mount Royal University political analyst David Taras said if the pipeline is approved, it could give Ms. Redford a much-needed political boost.
“If Keystone goes through, she’ll be there to take some of the credit and there will be a bit of a halo,” he said. “That would make it much more difficult for the party to turn on someone who basically has just delivered, and basically has the support of downtown Calgary.”