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Welcome to Alberta, where politicians roam free

Premier Alison Redford is embarking on a tour of Alberta to take the pulse of the province.

JASON FRANSON/jason franson The Globe and Mail

With all this touring, one can hardly find time to govern.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford's cabinet began a province-wide tour Monday, hoping to "talk with Albertans about their priorities for the future." It's an all-too-familiar refrain as of late. They may indeed find Albertans' priorities include, for starters, a preference for fewer tours.

Doors across the province have been knocked on non-stop. Alberta's five political parties have combined for at least 14 province-wide tours in the past 16 months, in addition to a federal election and leadership campaigns for three provincial parties, including Ms. Redford's Progressive Conservatives.

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All told, more than two dozen tours – the "Cabinet Tour," "Summer Leader's Tour," "Connecting with Albertans Tour," the "Earning Your Trust Tour," the "Big Listen" among them – but all essentially campaign-style sojourns.

Meanwhile, MLAs sat in the legislature for 47 days throughout 2011.

Ms. Redford's party alone has had at least eight so-called province-wide tours and a leadership race. It's also the only party that sets the legislative agenda, decides when the house adjourns and, with an overwhelming majority, has access to the largest total travel allowance. Its tours cost more.

They've included the current government event, which will run until Thursday; a tour for the Education Act; one on property rights; one on the budget; one on the use of public land; one on first-nations employment; one that followed the resignation of former premier Ed Stelmach; and one by a committee cutting red tape. Some was work done by committees (whose members get paid more) and others involved online consultation.

This tour includes 22 MLAs, but the government won't say how much it will cost.

It will nonetheless be on the public dime when she and other cabinet ministers head to a series of PC-friendly photo-ops (such as two Monday – one of the Premier riding public transit and, then, at Edmonton's Stollery Children's Hospital) with an election looming in three months.

"When the legislature isn't in session, you have a lot of free time on your hands. But this one in particular – this one is a campaign tour being paid for by the government of Alberta," said Duane Bratt, chair of the department of policy studies at Calgary's Mount Royal University. "When you know the election's coming, and you do this?"

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Ms. Redford dismissed the notion that her party is abusing travel allowances and even pledged to continue the practice if re-elected.

"I think it's important for us as cabinet to listen to what Albertans are saying. I think that's what Albertans want. That's certainly what we're going to do this week. We've done it every single year and we'll continue to do it because we think it's important," she said.

Tours can add up. For instance, in 2010, when Ms. Redford was justice minister, her office spent $61,103.27 on "meals, accommodation and travel," but detailed breakdowns aren't made public.

Between April and November 2011, Alberta's 21 ministries claimed a total of $487,354.83 in ministers' "meals, accommodation and travel." It's an average of approximately $23,207 over the first eight months of the fiscal year. And that's above what each MLA can claim for travel.

Each MLA can bill 10 nights of hotel per year, at $185 per night, in addition to an allowance they receive for temporary accommodation in Edmonton if they don't live there. The benefits include unlimited return flights between their constituencies and Edmonton and five return flights of their choice within the province if on "government business." They can also claim mileage of approximately 36 cents per kilometre (and don't need to provide receipts for the first 18,000 kilometres). They get twice-annual auto detailing, $900 in annual parking, unlimited taxi rides and "fuel, oil, lubrication fluid, antifreeze, gas line antifreeze, transmission fluid, brake fluid, steering fluid, windshield washer fluid and car washing and waxing, including labour," according to government legislation.

Naturally, opposition parties say government members have an unfair advantage. Some provinces have begun to limit what governing parties can do – in Manitoba, the government can't make announcements within 90 days of an election.

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Alberta's Wildrose Party funded its motorhome tour of the province last summer by donations, while Liberal Leader Raj Sherman (who has done three tours himself in the past year, including his leadership campaign) noted Ms. Redford's "whack-a-mole tour" didn't even release its full itinerary until the tour began.

"The only reason why they're doing this tour right now is because they're hoping to be able to use taxpayer money to be able to fund a pre-election campaign tour for the PC Party," Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said Monday.

The tour comes at a time when the PCs face mounting evidence that the party has routinely solicited and accepted partisan donations from municipalities and government-funded agencies – a long-held practice in a province that has been a de facto one-party state. That, combined with travel expenses of a plainly political tour, could pose problems for Ms. Redford (occasionally derided as too centrist) as the party hopes to convince its base of its conservative bona fides.

"If they are so out of touch that they don't know by now what the issues are that Albertans are concerned about, they're not going to get any meaningful feedback from the tour they're doing," Ms. Smith said.

With a report from Dawn Walton in Calgary

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