With a lofty agenda in Ottawa and abroad, Alberta's new premier is back on home turf for a rocky, whirlwind legislative session.
On Monday, Alison Redford returned to the legislature, where her government adjourned proceedings last month after just two days. Ms. Redford has since undertaken a one-woman road show to promote Alberta and its energy sector, touring Washington, New York, Toronto and Ottawa.
Now, she faces questions about the gritty detail of her work at home. Ms. Redford won her leadership with a lofty agenda, and has since been accused of breaking or backing away from promises.
She cancelled the fall session, brought it back again before delaying it. She pledged a fixed election date, and will now bring in a fixed election season of three months, every four years, to allow flexibility in case of natural disasters and to accommodate the needs of farmers. (Next door, Saskatchewan has a fixed date.)
"Absolutely nothing has changed, and the fixed-election-season legislation is a perfect example," said NDP Leader Brian Mason, among those who have complained of broken promises.
Instead of calling a health inquiry into allegations her own party intimidated and bullied top physicians in the province – an inquiry long sought by the opposition – she is instead beefing up an arms-length body, the Health Quality Council of Alberta, to investigate. In legislation to be tabled this week, her House Leader, Dave Hancock, insists it's an "inquiry-plus." Opposition parties say it lacks the clout, transparency and independence of a judicial inquiry.
Ms. Redford also pledged to amend the Human Rights Act (with the goal of loosening discrimination laws around speech) and boost payments to the disabled – now, in mandate letters to her ministers, the government is exploring the viability of doing each. She pledged to review MLA salaries, and instead struck up an in-house review led by Speaker Ken Kowalski, who has overseen many pay raises over the past decade. The government also budgeted last week for a 4-per-cent MLA pay increase – just in case, it says.
Mr. Hancock and the Premier's staff bristle at the suggestion of flip-flops, acknowledging they "screwed up" the fall session sitting but that each of her promises will be followed through on.
"The Premier doesn't have a magic wand," Mr. Hancock said. "We have, I think, carefully picked things this fall that could be done with some degree of thoroughness." Others, such as the payments to the disabled and the changing of the Human Rights Act, are expected in the spring. The government has moved at a breakneck pace since Ms. Redford won her party's leadership race on Oct. 1, Mr. Hancock said.
It's not all complaints they're hearing. Ms. Redford's team did bring in extra funding for school boards – $107-million in ancillary programs trimmed under the last budget. Talks have begun on giving school boards long-term funding agreements. "I think we're very optimistic," said Patty Dittrick, president of the Alberta Public School Board Association.
Liberal MLA Bridget Pastoor, meanwhile, announced she would cross the floor to join Ms. Redford's party, yet another sign of her appeal to centrists in the province – and of the room the Wildrose party has on the right.
Ms. Redford's "carefully picked" agenda will now be pushed through over the next two weeks – about half a dozen bills, including the beefed-up HQCA, the fixed election season, the overhauling of the role of the province's Child and Youth Advocate and a bill toughening penalties on drunk driving, an act derided by some as too harsh and one that will deal a blow to the hospitality industry.
There'll be little debate on each, all of which will be tabled Monday or Tuesday. "It's legislation by exhaustion," Mr. Mason said. Next year, a brief spring session will be followed by an election. Polls show Ms. Redford's party, which has ruled for 40 consecutive years, in a position to win yet another majority.
"I guess I thought her leadership was going to be a radical departure from traditional PC policies," Mr. Mason said. "But I'm beginning to feel now the old guard is pretty much still in control."