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Our Surprising Premier

Alison Redford appeals to a broader base.

By Jason Markusoff

Alison Redford was a bit late to the party when she appeared, rainbow sash over black top, at Calgary Pride’s post-parade festival on September 2. From the stage at the downtown park, the premier explained she had missed the afternoon’s parade because she was in Edmonton, celebrating the legislature building’s centennial. “It was a really fun opportunity to think about what Alberta looked like 100 years ago compared to what it looks like today,” she said. “And I like Alberta today.”

The punchline drew some applause. Redford drew a better response with her pledge to ensure people get to live their lives with dignity and confidence, and as who they are. Near the stage a teenager in a purple wig clapped politely. The leather-clad woman next to her shouted her approval, as did the clutch of guys in skinny jeans. Redford came offstage to talk with reporters, telling us her attendance shouldn’t really be much of a story in modern Alberta—she had taken part in the 2011 pride march as a Tory leadership candidate.

After aides shuffled her away following a couple of budget and infrastructure questions, cries of “Thank you! Thank you!” came from a woman on the other side of a temporary event fence. This was Margaret Booth, in a loose-fitting tie-dyed T-shirt and green beads. Retired healthcare worker. Lesbian. Labour activist. A textbook member of an Alberta Tory’s cheering section, eh? “It’s a bit shocking, even for me,” Booth admits. One hundred years ago? A premier like Redford would have been unthinkable five years ago, she says. “Five years ago I would never have believed this could happen. I think she’s lived and been and worked all over the world. It is second nature. She wouldn’t think of excluding us.”

Alison Redford at Edmonton's gay pride festival.

Alison Redford at Edmonton’s gay pride festival. (CP Image)

Later that week, Redford explained in an interview that everything she and her government do must aim at creating a respectful environment for people’s choices and lifestyles. “And that to me is a fundamental principle. It’s not a particular right,” she said. “It’s about all of our rights. And ensuring—and I believe that it’s entirely possible—that we’re creating a community where part of our natural public discourse is to accept as a basic premise that people live their lives differently, and that they can all live together.”

Booth considered voting Tory last spring, but decided against it. A bout of never-thought-I’d-vote-PC clearly afflicted many Albertans, however. The NDP, Liberals and other parties on that side of the political fence got 35 per cent of the popular vote in Alberta’s 2008 election, but only 20 per cent in April 2012.

It used to be that the Grits, NDs and Greens catered to the environmentalists, human rights advocates, academics, artists, unions, social workers, teachers, nurses and others who felt disenfranchised or shortchanged. The mighty PC tent gathered in pretty much everyone else. But Alberta’s current premier—speaker of French, reverser of cuts, raiser of disability benefits—is competing for many interests often overlooked by the 42-year governing party. Meanwhile, a host of other groups are scurrying out the tent’s right flap, and it’s unclear whether they will return. Or whether Redford cares one whit.

A new measure adding $271-million to the budget last spring? Yep, election season was upon us. Albertans have come to expect these big-ticket goodies as printers get orders for campaign signs and bus decals. Civic officials awaiting a new hospital in Medicine Hat or a college expansion in Grande Prairie get their hopes up extra high once newspapers began to speculate daily on the timing of an election call.

But in Redford’s first turn at the tax-and-spend levers, that multi-million-dollar bump in a deficit-mired budget wasn’t the typical one that would get construction-contractor tongues wagging. The $271-million measure hiked Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped payments by $400 a month and let clients earn more income before government clawbacks would kick in.

Alison Redford: “We accept as a basic premise that people live their lives differently, and that they can all live together.”

But this was also the fulfilment of a campaign promise. During the previous summer’s Tory leadership race, Redford had insisted she was “troubled by the fact there is a group of people that are truly vulnerable and very much want to live their lives with dignity and confidence,” and pledged to raise the level of government support. The last time AISH had come up around an election was 2004. Ralph Klein had griped about two women who “didn’t look disabled” “yipping” at him about payments. In just her first budget, Redford had hiked benefits more than they’d been raised in the last 20 budget years combined.

The first cheques with increased disability benefits hit mailboxes midway through the 2012 campaign. The income boost affected more than just the 46,000 Albertans who receive AISH, says former cabinet minister Iris Evans. “Out here in Sherwood Park, I can tell you, at that advanced poll, anybody who had had any contact with people who need assisted living supports were there in droves,” she said. “They weren’t marking their ballot for anyone but Alison Redford. She recognized that for those people it was hardly a livable amount of money to live on in Alberta and she had the courage to do it fresh in her mandate. She came through for them. And they’ll be there for her until the last dog is hung.”

Redford’s knack for crowd-pleasing timing—and for attracting a new crowd—showed again in June when, days before she’d marched in Edmonton’s Pride parade, she reinstated gender-reassignment surgery as an insured medical treatment. While she was justice minister in Ed Stelmach’s cabinet, she had watched quietly as his regime made the surgery an out-of-pocket medical expense. “These are fundamental issues to people’s physical health, their mental health, their social identity,” she told Swerve magazine. “To marginalize those concerns was very troubling to me.”

In a May speech to the Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations, Redford tossed more daggers at her own party’s record. On dealing with the ravages of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder: “We can do a better job.” About how government had been demanding community help with social services but not putting up funds: “It was an abrogation of our responsibility.”

Redford, veering from her prepared text, surprised the crowd of not-for-profit leaders. They hadn’t expected to hear their own advocates’ language echoed back to them by a premier, even if she had been cultivating their support during her campaigns. “But if I were her, I’d be afraid, because we all now have very high expectations,” Theatre Alberta’s Keri Mitchell told the Edmonton Journal. Months later Redford would tap Karen Lynch, long-time executive director of Volunteer Alberta, to a communications post in the premier’s office.

Bev Longstaff, co-chair of domestic violence support group Homefront, says you used to have to know somebody in government to get an audience. “Alison seemed like she wants to advance our mission,” she says. “Some people say to you, ‘Yes, yes, I agree with you. I’ll see what I can do.’ Or, ‘I’ll do my best.’ And it goes nowhere. But that was not how Alison dealt with us. If she said you have to give her time, she meant that… She never just left us dangling.”

A litany of opposition complaints left over from the Klein years still exists. School fees? Still there. Saving for the future instead of squandering oil wealth? The Lougheedian dream still eludes us. Doctor intimidation and ER wait times? Concern is high from nearly all corners, and the worry is festering. Even AISH payments aren’t indexed to grow with inflation, while MLA salaries are.

A traditional Tory partner hasn’t gone anywhere: the oilpatch. Redford’s pledge of “responsible development” hasn’t triggered a change in the pace of oil and gas extraction. Redford was executives’ point person in Calgary during the Stelmach days, and as premier has boosted bitumen pipelines and reassured industry that she won’t raise oil and gas royalties.

But there are noticeable green shoots of change. Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute says he’s noticed an end to Tory defensiveness and black-and-white reaction regarding environmental issues from the minister’s office; Alberta Energy is working more closely with Alberta Environment. “The Stelmach government was much more stilted and one-off and defensive,” Pembina’s policy director says. “Now we seem to at least have two-way conversation on the issues.”

Longstaff: Social service providers used to have to know someone in government to be heard, “but thay’s not how Redfrod deals with us.”

A cold political calculus may account for the PC brand’s new incarnation in this, its fifth decade of rule. A rural-based threat rose in southern Alberta during Stelmach’s latter years as premier, flaying the Tories from the right and determinedly branding themselves as “true conservatives,” with Danielle Smith putting a young and charismatic face on a gang stereotyped as grumpy old men. Meanwhile, the Liberals had weak organization after their own leadership shuffle, the NDP was stalwart but had slim hope outside of a few Edmonton ridings, and the Alberta Party were an untested social-media phenomenon led by a little-known fellow from Hinton. However crowded, the thinking went, the centre-left offered room to grow for the Tories.

“All’s you have to do in democracy is get more votes than the other person,” says Lloyd Snelgrove, the Stelmach-era finance minister so disillusioned with Redford’s spending ideas that he left Tory benches to sit as an independent before leaving office in 2012. “You can adapt—it may be a different shape or different size—just as long as you can capture that majority.”

But this armchair analysis overlooks who Alison Redford is and where she comes from. Even if the political climate hadn’t been so ripe for a PC shift to the centre when Redford became the latest come-from-behind darling, Redford may have wanted the same shift.

In his final interview on CBC Calgary’s morning radio show last April, Peter Lougheed discussed his post-election outlook. You could picture the Tory patriarch stabbing the desktop with his finger when the host asked how Redford might reunite the two sides of the small-c conservative movement. “I’m glad you asked the question that way, because I can clear it up,” he said. “That’s not the way it really is. The Progressive Conservative party are in the centre; they’re not on the right. There’s this misconception… and you know, the reason I say that so strongly and firmly is that I know the public of Alberta reasonably well, because of my background, and they’re people of the centre.”

Lougheed went on to acknowledge that the party he built didn’t stay in the centre in the Ralph Klein days. But then, he’d also say Klein didn’t have much to do with the party he built. As he told The Globe and Mail, “Mr. Klein came along and reverted the party backward to what I call the old Social Credit days, when Alberta was the whole focus and it wasn’t a cross-Canada focus.”

Given almost any opportunity, Redford will declare the late Mr. Lougheed her mentor, and will add that his is the legacy she carries forward. She’ll say far less about the party’s other dynastic ruler, Klein, or about Don Getty—she had little to do with the Alberta PCs when those men were running the show.

Redford was six years old when Lougheed became premier in 1971. She became president of the party’s youth wing while still in high school. After Lougheed resigned, she worked on the leadership campaign of former MLA Ron Ghitter, an outspoken progressive who would keep a distance from the party after Getty won, arguing that the new premier had vacated the political centre. Following Ghitter’s third-place finish, Redford headed off to law school in Saskatchewan and then worked in the Mulroney government in Ottawa, in what was the start of a 23-year hiatus from any significant role in Alberta politics.

As Calgary’s political establishment tilted toward Preston Manning’s Reform Party, Redford remained close and worked with the dwindling Red Tory team: Lee Richardson, Joe Clark, Jim Prentice (whose law firm she articled with) and organizers Stephen Carter and Susan Elliott, who would become her top campaign strategists.

With her institution-building work in such places as South Africa and Bosnia, there wasn’t much time for provincial politics, said Robert Hawkes, Redford’s first husband and later the premier’s transition team chairman. Klein’s team wasn’t the party Redford believed in anyway. “Klein came in with a similar mandate of change—to move away from the old party and to build something new,” Hawkes said. “I don’t believe there were the same opportunities for Alison to be involved provincially, coming from the old party.”

Asked in an interview about Lougheed’s comparison of Klein to the Socreds, Redford gave the PC (as in “politically correct”) answer about respecting that Klein made “tough decisions” and erased Alberta’s fiscal debt, but added it’s important for Alberta “not to fall backward.” It’s Smith who talks most and most wistfully of Klein’s “Alberta Advantage” brand.

Redford remained a provincial PC member throughout the 1990s and 2000s, but her first choice for seeking office was federal—she gravitated to her “natural connection,” she explained. In 2004 she unsuccessfully challenged MP Rob Anders for the Calgary-West nomination for the newly merged Conservative party. Redford sat out the next provincial election that same fall, as well as a subsequent by-election in Calgary-Elbow after Ed Stelmach became premier, but then ran and won in Elbow (Klein’s old riding) in the 2008 general election.

Rod Love: “The more Redford courts a liberal demographic, the more conservatives will say, “What’s going on here?”

Stelmach was impressed with Redford’s intellect and experience, and vaulted her immediately into cabinet as justice minister—a progressive rising star in a more-progressive-than-Klein regime. “She had a way she wanted to see things done,” Iris Evans recalls. “She would carve that out. And she wasn’t afraid to stand alone and still go after that vision.”

After leaving cabinet in 2011 to pursue the leadership, Redford would lay bare some of her disagreements with the Stelmach regime—for example, over AISH and gender-reassignment surgery. Many party members accused her of Tory-bashing on her way to the party’s leadership, a first-term rookie challenging party stalwarts Gary Mar and Doug Horner. “I thought she needed more grooming,” says former transportation minister Luke Ouellette. Redford’s critics, both inside the party and out, pointed to her having but one fellow MLA endorse her for leader (Art Johnston) as proof she couldn’t bring the team along with her.

Aside from Snelgrove—a Stelmach loyalist—no MLAs bolted the party. But many chose not to run again. For a premier trying to turn the page, that likely worked to her benefit. Thanks in part to voters’ purge of rural southern Alberta PCs, freshmen and sophomore members now dominate Tory benches. The 19 MLAs who’ve been thumping legislature desks longer than their boss now form a caucus rump. Those “veterans”—having served three terms or more—are outnumbered by the 23 PC rookies elected last spring, who know no team but Team Redford.

Redford cites Brian Mulroney as another leadership role model. She admires how he managed a large caucus and executed controversial policies, including free trade and the GST, but also his belief his MPs should all “sing from the same hymn book.” The premier has also selected office staff with little connection to past provincial governments. Her chiefs of staff, Stephen Carter (pre-election period) and Farouk Adatia (post-election), haven’t worked in the legislature before, while policy chief Darren Cunningham and principal secretary Lee Richardson have more ties to Mulroney than to recent Alberta leaders.

A big hurdle in accomplishing her goals, Redford said, is risk of “being parochial,” of thinking “about how we did things five or 10 or 20 years ago and saying that was good enough.” But how Lougheed did it 30 years ago? That’s more her speed. When given the same question about reuniting Alberta’s right that her mentor handled on the radio, Redford said it’s become a mistake to think in those terms. “That conversation today is very different than two years ago, and it’s very different than what it will be in two years,” she said. “It’s not about saying we need to restructure a Progressive Conservative party and go back to something that used to exist. It’s always about moving forward.”

This fall’s question period battles showed Redford may not care about luring Wildrosers back, but the new official opposition sure gets under her skin. After years of Tory indifference to slings from left-leaning parties, Redford’s taking much “umbrage” and “exception” to Danielle Smith’s questions. With all of Redford’s post-partisan talk and avoidance of touting conservative values unless she stresses how they’re progressive conservative values, the small-government crowd may not want to stray back into her fold. “That’s the delicate balance Redford has to walk,” says Rod Love, Klein’s former right-hand man. “The more you court the traditional liberal demographic, the more conservatives will say, ‘What’s going on here? If you’re moving over there, I guess I’m moving over here.’ ”

Sometimes it’s remarkable to realize what amounts to the historic and revolutionary in Redford’s actions. For instance, she was the first Alberta premier to name a transportation minister who represented a big-city riding—for more than a century, they’d all been from areas that cared more about widening highways than funding public transit.

That more urban focus showed up in Redford’s push for harsher penalties for impaired driving. She wasn’t likely listening to rural Alberta, where catching a cab after a beery night out isn’t an option, says Ouellette, the former Innisfail-Sylvan Lake MLA who served as transportation minister when Redford was justice minister. “I had a lot of people saying they were going to vote Wildrose because of that,” he says. The .05 impairment rules and landowners’ rights, which Danielle Smith championed, resonated hotly in the part of the province Redford has ceded—perhaps for a long time. “If you’ve made a decision on an emotional or personal issue that alienated people, they will very seldom ever come back,” Snelgrove said. “They may sit it out, but typically you’ve lost them.”

The drunk-driving reform was one of the first pieces of legislation Redford passed as premier. “It was too soon,” admits Carter, who was her chief of staff at the time. “Stelmach would often solve problems [the public] didn’t know it had. We did that with our first initiative out the gate.”

Few people were listening at the time, but Redford had said in summer of 2011 it would be one of her first measures if she became leader. Again she was carrying out the mission of an advocacy group not used to having a champion in government—in this case, Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Its leaders had approached her a year before the leadership race. “I was elated to speak with someone who knew what I was saying and welcomed what I was saying,” said Denise Dubyk, MADD’s Calgary-based national president. “She listened intently. She asked questions. She wrote notes. And by continuing conversations with her as justice minister, we knew that as she asked those questions and wrote those notes, they went further than just the notepad she was writing on.”

Dubyk and Redford now hug whenever they see each other—a common practice, others say, of Redford’s. MADD is now a group well ensconced under the Redford Tory tent. And as with the gay community and others who had grown used to indifference or worse from the Alberta government, the group is hearing their messaging emphatically echoed back to them by a premier trying to reshape the public discourse.

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Redford makes an election campaign stop at a Sikh temple in Calgary, April 2012. (Government of Alberta)

“Even having a discussion about what is an appropriate level of intoxication when you drive…” said Redford. “I mean, that is an absolutely absurd discussion. We can’t compromise standards with respect to that.”

Political blogger David Climenhaga, who as a diehard NDP supporter never skips a chance to bash a Tory, wrote this fall: “At least she is the first Alberta Conservative leader since Mr. Lougheed left the political stage for whom there is some hope.”

It’s healthy to be wary of new political leaders offering hope. (See Obama, B.) Redford has come in with several flourishes of accountability and transparency, such as public-sector whistleblower legislation and mandating the return of MLAs’ “no-meet committee” pay, fuller expense disclosures and a public inquiry (albeit limited) into hospital queue-jumping—Alberta’s first judicial inquiry since the Code Inquiry into the Principal Group back in the Getty days.

But nearly every political leader enters with one broom and gets swept out by another. Stelmach came in with “Honesty, Integrity” as his campaign slogan and gave Alberta its lobbyist registry and better access to flight records on government planes. Klein brought in the first ethics commissioner and quasi-public policy committees and also cracked down on questionable MLA pay packages. Stephen Harper, whom few would call Mr. Openness today, started as prime minister by introducing the Federal Accountability Act and appointed the first parliamentary budget officer. Often, initial gestures get lost in a muddle of so much of what follows the honeymoon period.

Redford’s impulse toward being inclusive will be tested on budget matters. If energy revenue continues to sputter, she will have to disappoint people she’d rather please, or try countering such ingrained Tory habits as balanced-budget legislation and public disdain for debt (although she’s OK with borrowing to build stuff). Jim Dinning, another former Lougheed acolyte, became public-service hatchet man as treasurer in the 1990s when times—and his boss, Ralph—demanded. Redford has ruled out one decidedly unconservative solution, repeatedly promising not to hike taxes.

She has positioned herself as a “no looking back” premier pursuing new directions and listening to new audiences. But if debate refocuses around old matters of dollars and cents, the traditional battle lines Redford would rather rub out could get redrawn pretty quickly—by those with her as well as those against her.

Jason Markusoff is the civic affairs writer for the Calgary Herald and a former legislative correspondent for the Edmonton Journal.

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