Alberta's opposition parties criticized Premier Alison Redford over travel expenses, including her international trips, for the second day in a row of a new legislature session. But Ms. Redford defended using government planes to bring her 12-year-old daughter with her on government business – saying not only is she the first woman to hold Alberta's top political job, but she is also the first premier who is a mother.
"One of the things that people often do when they introduce me is they introduce me as Alberta's first woman premier. And I'm also the first premier who's a mom," she told the legislature.
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said the province's rules are clear that family members cannot travel on any one of the four government aircraft unless it is the politician's spouse invited to an event. The Premier is trying to deflect attention from the controversy by talking about her family, she said.
"When she gets into trouble, she talks about being a mom," the Official Opposition leader said in an interview. "This isn't about her being her being a mom, this is about her breaking the rules."
The opposition charges that the bigger issue is travel overspending – including a $45,000 trip to South Africa for Nelson Mandela's funeral late last year – in Ms. Redford's office. The Premier's line of argument about the intersection of family time and work ignited a new debate in the legislature on the second day of rancorous questioning over Ms. Redford's expenses.
"There are thousands of government employees who are women and who have families who are not allowed to bring their children to work," NDP Leader Brian Mason said during Question Period, even though he had earlier told reporters he saw nothing wrong with Ms. Redford taking her daughter with her if a seat was free on the plane.
Just a day earlier, Ms. Redford said she would pay back $3,100 for the personal use of government planes, including four occasions when she allowed her school-aged daughter, Sarah, to bring a friend with her while accompanying her mother on government travels. She also suspended all travel outside the province on the government fleet, and asked the province's Auditor-General to take a close look at whether her expenses are appropriate.
But on Wednesday, the Premier seemed more resolute, saying her intention is only to spend time with her daughter.
Deputy Premier Dave Hancock weighed in on the motherhood debate, telling reporters most Albertans would not object to the Premier bringing family, or even her daughter's friend, on a government trip as long as a seat is available and no extra cost is involved. "It's the only way you can do this job," Mr. Hancock said.
The family-values debate comes the day before the Progressive Conservative government introduces its 2014-15 budget, expected to be a steady-as-she-goes document with little in the way of new spending. A small operating surplus is also predicted, although the province continues to take on debt to build roads, schools and other infrastructure projects.
While Ms. Redford has apologized for the cost of the South Africa trip, deemed excessive by critics and supporters alike, she has so far rejected opposition party calls to reimburse government coffers. A poll this week showed the Wildrose Party ahead by 13 percentage points, and the Premier's approval rate at a new low of 20 per cent.
Two years before the next election, some PC caucus members appear to be concerned about the political toll of the issue. There is off-the-record grumbling about the Ms. Redford's performance on this, and during Question Period on Wednesday, the mood on the government benches was subdued, with a number of backbenchers sitting silently instead of engaging in the usual ritual of banging on their desks in support of the leader.
Edmonton Tory MLA Steve Young, who was unexpectedly demoted from his job as whip late last year and has recently criticized the Premier for her South Africa trip, has been relocated to the far back corner of the legislature.