Politics is often a bruising and bloody business, especially for party leaders. They must continually watch their back for those with unabashed ambition or those who have never accepted their rise to power. Such people often sit in wait for the first sign of a leader’s vulnerability.
Alison Redford has undoubtedly been feeling the dark shadows of revolt creep up on her.
In the Alberta Premier’s case, much of the swelling angst and concern in her Progressive Conservative party has arisen from her own doing. Since winning the party leadership in 2011, Ms. Redford has been dogged by one controversy after another.
It may not be fair, but her perceived imperious style has not gone over well in a province known for its plain-spoken ways. When people called former premier Ralph Klein “King Ralph,” it was a term of endearment. Not so for Queen Alison.
On Wednesday, Ms. Redford announced that she would personally pay back the $45,000 cost of a trip to South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s funeral that she took with an aide. The trip had become the focus of much dissent in her party and the Alberta public – a symbol, if you will, of the queen’s excesses. Ms. Redford had already agreed to pay back the cost of trips taken on government jets by friends of her daughter.
There have been other examples of questionable use of taxpayer-funded air travel by the Premier and her cabinet. And this week, there was a report that Ms. Redford was using the services of the Calgary police to bolster her security detail, which is already the largest in Alberta history. Nothing says power more than a phalanx of police officers protecting you when you leave a hotel – even if there isn’t a menacing-looking soul in sight.
But the big one was the Mandela trip. Before Ms. Redford stepped in front of the cameras to announce that she was opening her own wallet to repay the entire cost, rumours swirled that as many as 20 members of her caucus were threatening to bolt and sit as independents in disgust. One PC MLA, Len Webber, decided to break ranks anyway, and invited other disenchanted colleagues to join him as an independent.
At this point, it’s difficult to say how this ends for the Premier. But all signs suggest it won’t be well.
Her popularity in her party is extremely low, but not nearly as truncated as it is with the public, according to recent polls. Just one in five Albertans think she is doing a good job – at a time when the provincial economy is starting to heat up again and Ms. Redford’s Finance Minister just tabled a surplus budget. (Although the province is also taking on a large amount of debt to build new schools and hospitals.)
It’s an issue for many Progressive Conservatives, who believe Ms. Redford’s low popularity and spendthrift ways are a recipe for disaster when it comes time for the next election. Over the years, party power brokers have always ensured that their decades-long reign wouldn’t be compromised. When they’ve smelled trouble, they’ve acted. The party got rid of Mr. Klein and then his successor, Ed Stelmach, when they became more liability than asset.
Some believe Ms. Redford is being severely punished for her mistakes while her male predecessors were often given free passes for theirs. They’re right. Mr. Klein abused government jets and little was said. He also got drunk on the job. It didn’t hurt him because he possessed a populist’s touch that Ms. Redford doesn’t have.
But there’s no point in Ms. Redford’s allies playing the discrimination card, because it won’t change a thing. She must own her problems and the inevitable fallout from them. The old boys’ club that’s always been at the centre of the party and Alberta politics doesn’t like what it sees, and it usually writes the end of a premier’s script.
It would be a shame if Ms. Redford were forced out. As an intellectual force, she has few peers. But in politics, leaders aren’t always measured by their mental acumen. Success or failure is often determined by how well they read the public. When that connection is severed or damaged, it’s usually game over.
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