Alison Redford rubbed people the wrong way. She alienated the voting public, her grassroots support base and even her own party. She was called remote, uncommunicative, even bullying. She played fast and loose with travel expenses.
But the exiting Alberta premier's successor, whomever that turns out to be, can be thankful that Ms. Redford's premature political demise hasn't featured an economic shambles to go with the political one. Whatever missteps led to the premier's resignation less than two years after she was elected, messing up the economy wasn't among them.
Alberta's economy expanded by a healthy 3.5 per cent in 2013, and similar growth is anticipated for 2014. Forecasters predict that Alberta will have the fastest-growing economy in the country both this year and next.
The province's latest budget, unveiled two weeks ago, showed an estimated operating surplus of $1.6-billion in the fiscal year ended March 31, 2014, and a surplus of $2.6-billion projected for fiscal 2015. This may be, simultaneously, Ms. Redford's greatest economic accomplishment and the biggest blight on her fiscal record.
Last year, her government scrapped traditional (and much more straightforward) budget reporting and, in its place, split its budget reports into three separate accounts (Operational, Capital and Savings). The move instantly brought the province closer to eliminating deficits while conveniently moving expensive and debt-fuelled capital projects off the closely watched Operational ledger.
Still, even though it's an accounting smoke-and-mirrors act that represents a step backward in transparent government financial reporting, it doesn't change the broader narrative – that Alberta has essentially wiped out its deficit under Ms. Redford's watch. Royal Bank of Canada senior economist Robert Hogue calculated that if you reverted the province's latest numbers to its old budget presentation, it would have posted a tiny $335-million deficit for fiscal 2014, and would be headed for a surplus of $1.1-billion in fiscal 2015 – a swift turnaround from fiscal 2013's $2.8-billion deficit.
Under Ms. Redford, the province also launched an ambitious plan to upgrade its infrastructure, taking advantage of Alberta's stellar balance sheet and historically bargain-basement borrowing costs. Certainly, hard-core fiscal conservatives are appalled that the province has turned its back on the rare debt-free status that the late Tory premier Ralph Klein had worked so hard to achieve and entrench in law. But borrowing at low cost to finance long-term capital investments is hardly a reckless act. Indeed, many economists would consider this a wise strategy for driving productivity growth, attracting future investment and maintaining Alberta's economic advantage. And given that Alberta still has by far the smallest debt burden in the country (indeed, its savings are greater than its borrowings), it's hard to argue that it can't afford it.
Now, much of the credit for the economic growth and budget turnaround belongs less to good government management than to good fortune. Global oil prices have remained strong, the discount ("differential") for Alberta's oil sands crude relative to benchmark light crude has narrowed, and natural gas prices have improved markedly – all of which add up to more resource-royalty revenue in the Alberta government's coffers. Those royalties remain the province's lifeblood, and Ms. Redford certainly knew where her bread was buttered. She championed the cause of the province's energy producers, making important progress on pipeline negotiations to move Alberta's oil and gas both west and east (though beating her head against a wall repeatedly to the south).
Whether by luck or design, Ms. Redford's successor will inherit a province with fewer economic worries than it had several years ago. Growth is strong and stable, the fiscal house is in order, and a growth plan for the future is in place. That's a lot better than most people could ask for when taking over from someone who was driven from office.