Since becoming Alberta's Premier 15 months ago, Alison Redford has cast herself as the face of a changing, cosmopolitan province. She has cultivated a national profile among legislators and business leaders while pushing changes to key pillars of Confederation – health-care funding and energy policy among them.
But Ms. Redford has trouble on the home front. The final months of 2012 were a political disaster. She faced one firestorm after another, backtracked on election promises, brushed aside predecessors, saw her poll numbers sink, struggled to maintain course against an effective opposition and with a restless caucus, and now plans to steer her province into debt for the first time since 2004.
So much for the honeymoon. And the worst could be yet to come.
The budget is expected before the spring. Revenue projections are falling as the price of Alberta oil has dropped, leaving the government with a widening gap between what it is bringing in and what it spends.
Ms. Redford faces both a massive deficit (to the dismay of conservatives) and program cuts (which could scare off the centrists she has lured to her venerable party, the Progressive Conservatives). It's a dilemma – cut, borrow or both – that she shrugs off.
"Welcome to life in difficult economic circumstances. You have to make tough choices," Ms. Redford said during a recent interview.
She still sees her mandate as pursuing "progressive social change" with an eye on the purse-strings. "Quite frankly, that is exactly what our strength has been as Progressive Conservatives. And I do truly believe we can do both."
Meanwhile, allies of her predecessor are watching it all unfold, fighting the urge to gloat.
"This might sound strange, but there's too much at stake for us to be happy about it. It's still our home. It's still our province," said Lloyd Snelgrove, the former finance minister who tabled Ed Stelmach's 2011 budget.
The department knew of the looming financial problems that seem to have blindsided Ms. Redford, Mr. Snelgrove said. "There's no happiness in me that says, 'There, I told you.' "
Economists, fellow PCs, her home city's mayor and other observers have criticized her government in recent months.
Ms. Redford – a leader with both a quick mind and quick temper – responded by retreating from the public eye. Her seclusion was so marked that it sparked a complaint from the Alberta Legislature Press Gallery, of which The Globe and Mail is a member.
Some think she has lost her way. Assessing the fall session, a close ally of Ms. Redford said: "She either learns from it, or she doesn't. And the learning opportunity is to say, first of all, you don't get to run the agenda any more. There's an opposition, and they're effective.
"Secondly, she has to remember why she ran. She was supposed to be the woman who is fixing what's wrong with the PC party."
Her small inner circle is changing, with her long-time press secretary moving on, and Ms. Redford re-emerged on something of a charm offensive during the holidays – but remained on edge.
Asked about a large donation to the party's election campaign from billionaire Daryl Katz, she smiled and said: "You're actually embarrassed to ask the question, but go ahead."
A rough start
The list of controversies dogging Ms. Redford is long. It includes the Katz donation, which a source said was a $430,000 cheque, more than a quarter of the party's election fundraising, later split into amounts under the $30,000 limit for receipt purposes.
It's a practice Ms. Redford first denied knowing about, and now says is allowed, but she doesn't think Mr. Katz rescued the campaign.
"Um, no. I don't think so at all," Ms. Redford said, later adding: "And, you know, he certainly was a contributor. There's no doubt about that. But that's all I'd say about that."
It was also revealed that when Ms. Redford was justice minister, she selected a consortium to represent the province in a lawsuit against big tobacco that included the firm of her ex-husband and political ally. The firm could reap hundreds of millions of dollars in legal fees. (The deal was finalized by her successor, leading Ms. Redford to say it was not her decision.)
She faced anger when a delegation she led to the London Summer Olympics ended up costing taxpayers about $1-million rather than the projected $84,000.
And, as revenue fell, the government voted itself a better RRSP package – a raise.
Ms. Redford was elected party leader in late 2011 with a mandate to revitalize the PCs after 40 years in power.
She won a majority in a closely fought spring election and cast herself as a policy wonk Premier – but her legislative agenda, 10 new laws introduced in the fall, was underwhelming.
The laws included a sprawling Education Act, tabled after Ms. Redford bowed to pressure and removed a passage that would have applied the principles of the province's human rights act to classrooms. It was viewed as a move to placate the party base, but it also upset gay rights activists.
Her election act reform also was criticized: Ms. Redford promised an overhaul, but delivered what observers called toothless legislation that ensured the party can continue to rely heavily on corporate donors by enshrining loopholes and high donation limits while creating onerous regulations for city-level races.
"I was hoping to see something – anything – that actually addressed the problems the ill-thought-out previous legislation brought in. What we got was nothing," said Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, who typically avoids weighing in on provincial politics.
"Actually, what we got was less than nothing.
Mr. Nenshi had pushed for five specific changes, but instead got "ridiculous red-tape masquerading as reform."
Days of reckoning
Angus Reid now puts Ms. Redford's popularity at 47 per cent, down from 60 seven months earlier. But there's a bright spot for the embattled Premier: The controversies may not stick.
"I think, to a certain extent, the public starts to tune things out when they hear too many of them," said long-time Calgary pollster Bruce Cameron. He thinks Ms. Redford can weather the storm, with one caveat: "Unless the economy really sputters."
The budget crisis has painted Ms. Redford into a corner. Finance Minister Doug Horner hit the panic button last month, saying that nothing – not even an election promise – is sacred as the province tries to mend its high-spending ways. And its rainy day sustainability fund, which has been covering deficits since 2008, will soon be wiped out.
Ms. Redford's government first pledged to balance the 2013 budget, then said it would achieve "operational balance," which includes everything but infrastructure, for which it would borrow. The Calgary Chamber of Commerce says there's no such thing as "operational balance." Now, though, the government won't commit to even that.
Many say Alberta is facing a predictable financial downturn, one the Premier either hid or ignored in her pre-election budget.
"If they didn't know during the provincial election what a mess the finances were in, then they just weren't paying attention," said Frank Atkins, a University of Calgary economist who was Prime Minister Stephen Harper's thesis adviser.
Ms. Redford has said Alberta must build schools, roads and hospitals to prevent "a social infrastructure deficit, where we don't have enough classrooms, we don't have enough health-care facilities."
"We know what happened when we did that last time," she added. Asked if this was criticism of former premier Ralph Klein, Ms. Redford declined to discuss a "previous government over 20 years ago." Mr. Klein was premier from 1992 to 2006.
Fiscal conservatives dismiss the notion of an infrastructure deficit, saying Alberta spends heavily in this area and should build only what it can afford.
"There's no such thing as an infrastructure deficit. They made it up," Prof. Atkins said.
Party faithful will have their say later this year, after the budget. Ms. Redford faces a routine leadership review – the type that helped spur the departures of Mr. Klein and Mr. Stelmach. Ms. Redford declined to say what level of support she would need to stay on as Premier.
"I truly haven't given it any thought, and you're not going to get me to think about it right now," she said. But she acknowledged that rough times are ahead. "It's not going to be an easy year."