It is muddled and surprising, a mound of disturbing news piled on top of bad news. This is what politics in Alberta has become – an untidy affair for the Progressive Conservative government and its former premier, Alison Redford.
Since new allegations surfaced against Ms. Redford over her travel tendencies, pundits and politicians have been abuzz about how her fall from power could take the PC party down with her.
The Tories have ruled Alberta for more than 40 years and their ousting in early 2016 would be viewed as a monumental failure. Opposition members have called for an RCMP investigation into the former premier’s air travel, which included her aides making bogus passenger bookings, then cancelling them late so Ms. Redford could fly alone.
The public backlash over that has made the Tories especially vulnerable.
“I thought over a year ago that the PCs would lose the next election,” said Trevor Harrison, a professor of political sociology at the University of Lethbridge. “I’m more confident of that than ever. It’s a party in deep trouble. It’s the gift that keeps on giving for the Wildrose Party.”
Ms. Redford’s three years in office produced a series of misadventures. In 2011, she froze the wages of top management officials for three years. Just this week the government confirmed the salary freeze had long ago been dropped and that top managers had received a 7-per-cent raise.
Then there was the 2013 budget backed by Ms. Redford that managed to anger even long-time Tory loyalists. There was the $45,000 bill for attending the funeral of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. And there was the $3,100 Ms. Redford had to pay back for letting her daughter fly with her aboard government planes.
The Tories assumed they were done with the controversies when Ms. Redford resigned in March. But eyebrows were raised again this week when a leaked copy of an Auditor-General’s report exposed how Ms. Redford’s staff manipulated flight reservations.
Former Tory Len Webber said there were trips to and from Calgary where the premier would fly in one plane while MLAs and their staff took another. On occasion, the second plane was full, which meant party members such as Mr. Webber had to drive instead.
“It was building to the point where I couldn’t stay on with Alison Redford as our premier,” said Mr. Webber, who left the PCs in March to sit as an independent. “With respect to how she led the party and how she treated people – that was a reason I left.”
There is a way for the Tories to remake themselves. The problem, according to one political strategist, is that it takes time and patience to rebuild public trust.
“No. 1, they have to ‘hope and pray’ that the Redford disclosures are at an end,” assessed Geoff Norquay, a principal with the Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Ottawa as well as a former policy adviser for prime minister Brian Mulroney. “No. 2, this caretaker government under Dave Hancock needs to avoid mistakes like the licence plate fiasco.”
The province displayed a selection of possibilities for the new plates, all without the words Wild Rose Country on them. It was seen for what it was – a way to keep the Wildrose party from getting any publicity at the PCs’ expense.
As for the party’s next leader, Jim Prentice is favoured to win it in September. He has managed to sidestep Ms. Redford’s worst scandals, but he has had ties with her in the past. Ms. Redford articled at his law firm. He, in turn, praised her early work as premier.
Still, Mr. Prentice brings what the former premier squandered – hope for the Tories. And that’s a valuable commodity.
“Prentice has a back record federally [as minister of industry],” said Keith Brownsey, who teaches political studies at Calgary’s Mount Royal University. “He has a good reputation with native people as well as the business community.
“He will come in as the saviour on a white horse.”
That would fill the leadership void two years out from an Alberta election. On the flip side, that’s time enough for more damages to ooze their way to the surface and leave a mess.
“No one can say Alberta politics is boring,” said Prof. Harrison.