No one, least of all politicians, likes to admit just how big a role outside forces play in one’s political success – and failure. Strong MPs are defeated when the national campaign goes south. Unexpected issues derail the best laid plans. Competing interests from within will undermine even the most successful leaders.
That’s largely what happened to the last two Alberta Premiers. Ralph Klein saved the PC party from certain defeat in 1993, won 4 majorities, and eliminated the debt. His party showed its gratitude with a 55% leadership review.
All his successor did was increase the size of their majority, winning 72 of 83 seats. Three years later, the party brass quietly shoved Ed Stelmach aside.
I’ve written enough about Klein and Stelmach’s shortcomings to fill the legislature library, but even I will admit they got a raw deal. I wouldn’t call either a sympathetic figure, but in their own peculiar ways, they got the job done, only to be shown the door. Redford however, left her party with little choice.
It’s true that Redford was up against a few daunting obstacles. She won the party leadership with only 2 MLAs supporting her – and one of those MLAs was named Alison Redford. Unlike past PC leaders who could brush off a largely inept Liberal opposition with a few good NEP horror stories, Redford faced a new threat in the form of the Wildrose Alliance. And, as the old adage goes, governments tend to stumble during their 12th term in office.
Faced with this, it’s tempting to cast Redford as a victim of the fates. That likely would have been a fair narrative had she been buried in 2012 under a groundswell of support for Danielle Smith. But Redford won a convincing majority, giving her a clean mandate and plenty of political capital to spend. It turns out Alison Redford spends political capital as quickly as taxpayer dollars.
Soon after the election, Redford found herself in trouble for accepting a $430,000 donation from Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz. Katz was looking for government support for a new arena, so bankrolling Redford’s re-election campaign was likely a better investment for him than giving Shawn Horcoff 5.5 million a year. But it raised serious questions about Redford’s judgment – doubts which only grew when conflict of interest allegations surfaced surrounding a contract she had given to her ex-husband’s law firm. In both instances, Redford had a remarkably difficult time providing a clear explanation, and keeping her story straight.
It was reminiscent of her first scandal – the one which nearly cost her the 2012 election. Shortly after winning the leadership, Redford found herself in dire straights over the “money for nothing” controversy, when it came to light that MLAs were receiving $1,000 a month to sit on a committee which hadn’t met in four years. Opposition members quickly did the sensible thing and returned the money. Redford called the gesture a “stunt” and said there was nothing wrong with the committee – but hung her MLAs out to dry by suggesting there would be electoral consequences if they didn’t pay back the cash. Her caucus whip said voters were too stupid to understand the issue. In the end, Redford ordered her MLAs to return the funds, but only a month later, after the polls went south.
This pattern repeated itself with the controversy that would ultimately be her undoing. It started with extremely poor judgment, when Redford spent $45,000 of taxpayer dollars on a flight back from Nelson Mandela’s funeral (plus $3 for headphones). As per her modus operandi, Redford defended the move, changed her story, stalled, waited for the controversy to explode – and then acted, repaying the money. By that point, other revelations of misspending had surfaced, and there was no way out of the death spiral.
All leaders face scandals. The difference for Redford was that nearly all of these were of her own making. Each time, Redford showed herself to be out of touch with taxpayers, dithered and changed her story, and failed to act until the damage had been done. While there will no doubt be a temptation to paint Redford as a tragic figure, undone by 43 years of PC baggage and a party know who pulls out the knives at the first sign of trouble, she really has no one to blame for her failure but herself.