Why would a premier who had 61 of 87 seats in the legislature resign halfway through her term in office? Yes, there were two defections, reports of caucus unrest, weeks of media attention to the premier’s $44,254.39 delegation to South Africa to attend the funeral of Nelson Mandela, and a meeting with the party establishment on March 15, in which, we are told, concerns were raised about her performance. But from the outside, these looked like storms Alison Redford could weather. On March 14 her former campaign manager, Susan Elliott, described the premier’s problems as “a rough spot”—“a moment that calls for some tweaking and some introspection but [not] for major changes.”
With the evidence available to us—still fragmentary and largely hearsay—how can we piece together this puzzle? Was a female politician the victim of the retrograde old boys’ club, the men who have run the Progressive Conservative party and occupied its benches since its formation? What role did sexist treatment of Redford in political speech and media reporting play in her downfall? What composed the “unbelievable series of attacks from every direction,” as former premier Don Getty put it, that led Redford to her decision? What part did she herself play in this story? And what does this crisis of governance mean for Alberta’s future?
Redford’s use of government planes was less costly than Klein’s. Either a double standard is at work or motives other than presumed character flaws drove the backlash.
Every female politician faces the reality of masculine leadership norms created by generations of male politicians. Thus, in the political game, leaders are supposed to be “strong,” “tough” and “even occasionally ruthless.” The problem for women is that they really can’t win if measured against these norms. If they exhibit “manly” qualities, they will likely be characterized as “aggressive” (rather than assertive), “not a nice lady” or unfeeling (an “Ice Queen”). If they exhibit “feminine” qualities, then of course they are “weak,” “emotional,” “overly-sensitive,” subject to “tantrums” and so on. If we examine the language used to describe Redford over the weeks before her resignation, and note who used it, we see that she was as subject to sexist treatment as other female politicians. She walked a tightrope between displaying “masculine” leadership traits and reminding the public of her “feminine” roles (“working mom,” wife, daughter).
Complaints about her personality or personal management style have been stated publicly by only a few individuals, but these labels were frequently repeated and embellished in second-hand reports and commentaries. PC backbencher and long-time party member Len Webber told the Calgary Sun on March 13 that the premier was guilty of “intimidation and bullying,” disrespect, “fits of rage” and “temper tantrums.” Most of the attention to Redford’s personality as a cause of the caucus unrest drew its evidence from this one interview.
Steve Robson, president of the Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview PC association, said the next day that the premier had a “my-way-or-the-highway” leadership style, but then acknowledged that he had met her only a handful of times, on which occasions he was “impressed.” Robson, like Webber, is a long-time member of the party. He worked on Getty’s leadership campaign in the mid-1980s and supported Gary Mar for leader of the PCs in 2011. He also predicted the party would not win the next election with Redford as leader.
Calgary-McCall PC constituency president Jamie Lall said, in relation to Webber’s accusations, “Now, myself, from a personal standpoint, I’ve never seen it.” Dave Hancock, a cabinet minister and Redford supporter, dismissed Webber’s accusations as the resentments of “a very sad man” who “could not take the fact that in this business there are ups and there are downs and sometimes you’re in and sometimes you’re not.”
Hancock said, “Sometimes that has to do with geography and demographics and sometimes that has to do with whether you came and brought your best game to the table and whether you actually contributed.” Webber was serving his third term as an MLA and had previously been Minister of Aboriginal Relations, Minister of International & Intergovernmental Relations, and deputy government whip. Hancock may have been attributing Webber’s bitterness to his lack of a cabinet position. Elliott described Webber’s accusations as “personal and petty and unworthy of Len.”
Other backbenchers hinted at grievances with their treatment by Redford. Quoted in an Edmonton Journal story by Graham Thompson, March 16, MLA Mary Anne Jablonski said “If she can change the way she treats others, we have hope.” Allan Warrack, an erstwhile Redford supporter, suggested in a March 18 interview with the Calgary Sun that Redford was not a team player. Such complaints were not new. In a November 2012 Globe and Mail column, Jeffrey Simpson wrote, “It turns out Ms. Redford is tough to work for and with. Staff turnover has been a problem and, by privately conveyed accounts, ministers and MLAs are frustrated with her one-person style of decision-making. She has to learn that she’s the leader, yes, but the leader of a team.”
On the other hand, Lindsay Blackett (also a PC cabinet minister until demoted by Redford), observed that Redford had no support from the PC caucus when she ran for party leadership in 2011. It is surely difficult to be a “team player” without a “team.” The view that Redford was unsupported and undermined by members of her own caucus was repeated by Lall and former Drumheller-Stettler MLA Shirley McClellan in a March 17 news story. McClellan pointed the finger at caucus, saying disgruntled MLAs deserve some of the blame for the mess. “When you join a caucus, there is no me, it’s us,” she said. “The premier has a job, and it’s to govern. Her caucus needs to support her to do that.”
Of the individuals who commented in the media about the personality and leadership style of the former premier, only one said he was ill treated, and his interpretation and motivations have been questioned by others close to Redford. A handful of others have implied that she had an authoritarian management style, including one woman, Jablonski. These characterizations were, however, magnified by their reproduction in media reports. Right-wing columnist Lorne Gunter provided the most extreme example of such magnification. Without citing any evidence apart from Webber’s statements, he described Redford as entitled, pompous, an albatross, condescending, abrasive, arrogant, sneering, dismissive, autocratic, disorganized and having an “awful attitude”—all in one column.
Redford’s former communications director, Stefan Baranski, has said he believes she was the victim of a “smear campaign” by members of her own caucus and party—one that threatened her family. Baranski’s testimony was reported by the Globe and Mail: “She was not prepared to battle people in her own caucus and party who seemed prepared to go to any lengths to get her evicted from the job.” The Globe and Mail reported that the president of the PC party, Jim McCormick, had heard multiple rumours about Redford and had “personally ‘investigated’ many of the stories [but] could not substantiate a single one.” Neither Baranski nor McCormick identified the sources of this “character assassination” campaign—who was leading it and why.
Among Redford’s defenders, we find former premier Getty (who says he didn’t know her personally); Hancock (one of her cabinet ministers); and a few women who had worked with her (including Elliott). The female MLA who left the PC caucus as well as the cabinet, Donna Kennedy-Glans, refrained from criticizing Redford personally.
Notably, the only strongly positive characterizations of Redford in the weeks leading up to her resignation came from a female journalist, Paula Simons. While also reporting on the criticisms of Redford circulating in the media, Simons described the then-premier as smart, tough, witty, worldly, fierce, proud, poised, regal, dignified, cerebral, introverted and “the female outsider.”
Simons noted that while “bullying” or “arrogant” behaviour (including overspending) did not provoke a Conservative backlash against Ralph Klein, such accusations were proffered as grounds to replace Redford. Likewise, Calgary Herald columnist Naomi Lakritz dug up the figures to show that Redford’s use of government planes was less dubious and costly than Klein’s, suggesting a sexist double standard at work.
However, while masculine norms of leadership and patriarchal views of respectable femininity played a role in Redford’s unpopularity within her party, sexism is far from being the only the cause of her downfall.
The four-decade-long rule of the PC party in Alberta has permitted the party to lay down a vast and complex network of old-boy relationships, political patronage (such as appointments to various boards or agencies) and government–business cronyism (in which members of the PC party and corporate elites circulate routinely among posts in both spheres).
Was Alison Redford welcomed with open arms by the “old boys” network? It doesn’t look like it. Among her critics we find—mostly but not exclusively—PC party members associated with the governments of her predecessors. She was not their choice for leader of the party, and the mistrust seemed reciprocal. The “old guard” of Conservatives elected with Ralph Klein in the 1990s, ideologically fixated on the elimination of all provincial debt, were contemptuous of the Redford government’s deficit budgets. Their views are perfectly captured by former MLA Ted Morton in a Calgary Herald opinion piece published March 24. In addition to resenting Redford’s supposed end-run around the party faithful to win the leadership, and her hiring of former Prime Minister Joe Clark staffers from (gasp) Ontario, the Klein-era Conservatives were up in arms about the new government’s accounting methods.
As Morton tells it: “The third and final strike was new accounting rules introduced in last year’s provincial budget. The new three-prong accounting system—operational spending, capital spending and savings—just didn’t wash. This… didn’t escape the notice of the thousands of PC volunteers and constituency board members who remember the pain and pride of the Klein years—the pain of the spending cuts needed to end the deficits; and the pride of balancing the budgets and eventually paying off the $22-billion debt. For many PC faithful—and I was one—this was our hallmark, the PC brand. Redford (and Doug Horner) threw that brand overboard. For many veteran PCers, repealing the Klein–Dinning accounting rules was the final straw.”
Some of this right-wing faction of the PC party (also associated with the Harper Conservatives) had already decamped to the Wildrose party. Some Conservative MLAs appear to have feared for their re-election prospects under an unpopular premier. With their future incomes dependent upon the continued success of the ruling party, some MLAs even spoke to media (albeit usually anonymously) about this concern. Backbench MLAs were very concerned that reports of Redford’s $45,000 trip to South Africa, her use of government planes for private travel and the high salaries of some her staff were alienating voters in their constituencies. This fear was reinforced by polling data showing low approval for both the premier and the party.
As Simons pointed out in her Edmonton Journal column of March 20, premier Klein got away with similar abuses of the perks of office (not to mention multiple demonstrations of arrogant and bullying behaviour). “But while it was considered a forgivable sin for ‘King Ralph’ to live high and fly high at public expense, Redford, with her Ice Queen persona, was granted no such leniency.” One important difference between the two reigns is that King Ralph’s followers were not in danger of losing their fiefs to a new band of fiscal crusaders.
Party directors were concerned about the PCs’ paltry number of individual donors compared with the Wildrose party’s, and presumably made similar connections to the negative media reporting on the premier’s spending. Apparently Redford resisted pressure from members of her caucus to repay the $45,000 for several weeks, to the point that as many as 20 MLAs threatened to leave the caucus and either sit as independents or join the Wildrose caucus. The poor polling results and concerns about financial donations from grassroots party members pushed PC directors to intervene on March 15, reportedly pressing home their concerns with Redford in a four-hour meeting. Insiders described this meeting as a brutal inquisition by the 41 members of the predominantly male PC board of directors, who attacked, one by one, the premier’s management of party-caucus-cabinet relations as well as her “likeability” and electability. Redford was placed, effectively, “on probation” by the party brass—a public humiliation that it is hard to imagine being inflicted on a male party leader. On March 19 The Globe and Mail reported that riding presidents from the Calgary and Edmonton regions were “scheduled to gather to discuss the growing crisis in government. It was anticipated that non-confidence motions in Redford’s leadership would be tabled at meetings in both cities and would have had a legitimate chance of passing.”
The coup de grâce appears to have been the release of ThinkHQ’s survey results on the afternoon of March 19, the day of Redford’s resignation as premier. The numbers were summarized in a fashion most unfavourable to Redford by ThinkHQ president Marc Henry:
“PC vote numbers are now starting to be deeply impacted by Redford’s leadership: PCs now sitting at 19 per cent of the decided vote, compared to the WR at 46 per cent, Liberals at 16 per cent and NDP at 15 per cent. In Edmonton today, the PCs are sitting in fourth place. At present, less than half of the voters who cast a ballot for the PCs in 2012 would do so again tomorrow…. In present circumstances, it is difficult to imagine a probable scenario where the premier survives to the next election; not a question of if, rather of when.”
Some in the PCs’ progressive faction were alienated by entitlement as well as by Redford’s reluctance to challenge oil, gas and coal producers.
An account of the opposition to Redford is incomplete, however, if we look only at criticism coming from the right of the party. She had also disappointed more liberal elements within the party. Warrack, a Lougheed-era cabinet minister and an “architect” of the Heritage Savings & Trust Fund, complained on March 18 that the Heritage Fund had been “starved by low energy royalties” and that he had “long been disillusioned with the path the party has taken.” He said his “hopes” that “Redford would change that [had] been betrayed.” Referring to the drawing-down of the Heritage Fund to cover budget deficits, Warrack said “what we’ve built is gone.” Some of the Tories who supported Redford’s leadership campaign in 2011 may have hoped she would bring Alberta’s royalty and tax regime into the modern era.
Former premier Ed Stelmach had initiated a royalty review, whose panel recommended a significant (if moderate) increase in royalty rates. Stelmach’s initial acceptance of the 2007 recommendations triggered a powerful backlash from corporations in the sector, which included a transfer of political donations to the upstart Wildrose party. This move helped Wildrose to gain momentum and, eventually, to win 17 seats in the hotly contested (by Alberta standards) April 2012 provincial election.
Redford’s first budget in February 2012 did not touch royalty or tax rates, and predicted an $886-million deficit, to be covered by drawing down Alberta’s Sustainability Fund. In her February 2012 speech to the oil and gas industry’s Small Explorers & Producers Association of Canada (SEPAC), Redford used a phrase that she was to repeat over the next two years: “Energy is Alberta’s lifeblood and we are committed to doing everything we can to keep oil companies of all sizes healthy and viable. You will always be my highest economic priority.” By the time the election campaign of 2012 began in the following month, Redford had apparently repudiated any thought of increasing royalty rates. The PC election platform clearly stated there would be “no tax increases and no new taxes of any kind within the next three years.” Competing with the Wildrose party for industry support, Redford made no promises to increase royalties.
The energy sector was well satisfied with the disciplining effect of a new political contender on the Conservatives’ right, as some of its representatives made clear at a conference in March 2012: “From an oil and gas perspective, two pro-energy industry parties would be a good thing for Alberta,” said Gary Leach, executive director of SEPAC. “I think that if a governing party realizes even the largest opposition party—assuming the Wildrose ends up in that position—is standing for a strong, robust, profitable energy sector, it minimizes the temptation to pull the government in another direction. And that is why a number of people in the energy sector understand that and wish both parties good luck.”
David Collyer, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said the oil industry was pleased with Redford’s efforts to speak up for the oil sands and streamline regulations and with her advocacy for a Canadian energy strategy. “We got the royalties fixed,” he told a Financial Post reporter in 2012. “She has continued to demonstrate that the government of Alberta is supportive of the direction of the industry and what it does for Albertans and Canadians.”
The second case of a more “progressive” Conservative who appears to have been disillusioned by Redford’s leadership is Donna Kennedy-Glans, who was elected MLA for Calgary-Varsity in 2012. Kennedy-Glans had been appointed associate minister for electricity and renewable energy in December 2013. The creation of this portfolio might have been interpreted as evidence of a new interest on Redford’s part in greater investment in renewable energy production. But Kennedy-Glans resigned her position and left the Conservative caucus only three months later, on March 17, telling media she’d been unable to have renewable energy “more formally incorporated into government policy” and did not see how she could “advance change from within at this point in time.”
Kennedy-Glans said her constituents at the University of Calgary and in the public sector more generally had been unhappy about the Redford government’s budget cuts to these sectors and its recent labour legislation penalizing strike action by government employees. In addition she had not been consulted about certain decisions, including the creation of new Innovation Endowments, and she was concerned about fiscal management and the party’s sense of “entitlement.” Although these reasons overlap with those of the more conservative faction of the party, they also suggest that a somewhat “progressive” faction was also alienated by Redford’s reluctance to challenge the interests of the oil, gas and coal producers in any fashion. The size or influence of such a “progressive” faction within the PC party is, however, an unanswered question.
Polling evidence consistently supports the view that public opinion in Alberta is more progressive on many issues than is the program of the ruling party. In a February 2013 Environics survey of more than 1,000 Albertans, 72 per cent favoured returning to a progressive income tax, and 77 per cent favoured increased taxes on corporations and on individuals who make more than $200,000 per year. The same poll found even stronger evidence that most Albertans disagree with the direction their government has taken on oil royalty rates: 71 per cent agreed with the statement that Albertans are not getting their fair share of royalty revenue (this number fell to 64 per cent in Calgary). An Insights West poll conducted in January 2014 found that almost half of Albertans (48 per cent) believe—notwithstanding intensive industry advertising—that the oil sands are damaging the province’s ecosystems, and two in five (39 per cent) believe the oil sands are affecting the health of people in many Alberta communities.
As Redford tried to walk a line between needed investment in services and infrastructure—requiring spending—and fiscal conservatism, she alienated supporters on both left and right, including within her own caucus. The refusal to consider changes to Alberta’s fiscal regime was, of course, her decision. She sought to protect the PC party from the wrath of the oil “principals” and the threat of the Wildrose by squeezing program spending, borrowing to pay capital costs, praying for higher oil prices, lobbying for pipeline approvals and leaving taxes and royalty rates untouched. This was a path devoid of any inspiration or vision other than to keep the PC party in office. Ironically, no one in her own party thanked her.
Since premiers Stelmach and Redford were quickly redirected to the “right path” after exhibiting tendencies toward deviation, oil and gas companies have been well pleased with the PC party and fear nothing from the Wildrose. They are quite indifferent as to which brand of conservatives holds the largest number of seats in the legislature. Or as a business journalist writing for The Globe and Mail put it, “Given the outcomes of past skirmishes between the powerful industry and the government, most recently during Redford’s predecessor’s administration, chances are slim to none that there will be any shift to energy policy that would be detrimental to oil and gas operations, regardless of the eventual leader or ruling party.”
From the current vantage point of corporate executives there are really only two “potential scenarios.” The first is that “the PCs hold a leadership race, claw back support and win a general election again, leaving energy policy as it is.” The second scenario is that “industry-friendly Wildrose wins the next election and imposes no new economic or environmental burdens on the sector—essentially leaving energy policy as is.” Et voilà: The Queen is dead. Long live oil.
Laurie Adkin is an associate professor of comparative politics at the University of Alberta and a pioneer of political ecology studies in Canada. Her forthcoming book is First World Petro-Politics: The Political Ecology and Governance of Alberta (UTP).