With today’s release of Auditor General Merwan Saher‘s report on Alison Redford‘s travel habits, and as Premier Dave Hancock, leadership frontrunner Jim Prentice and Progressive Conservative MLAs desperately try to distance themselves from their former leader, it is important that we look back to a more optimistic time. During the 2011 PC leadership race, and the provincial election that followed, the former premier (and now former MLA for Calgary-Elbow) seemed to be full of potential and represented a hopeful future for her party and the province.
But, as we are now all aware, promises were broken and “mistakes were made” by Ms. Redford and her government.
Here is a look back to a happier time, in 2011, when then-leadership candidate Ms. Redford was asked why she wanted to become Premier of Alberta:
Editor’s Note: I will be taking a short break from the world of political blogging for the next week to enjoy the limited summer weather that our great country has to offer. To fill your need for daily Alberta politics news in my absence, keep an eye on AlbertaDiary.ca and the always prolific #ableg and #pcldr hashtags on Twitter.
The leak was a draft copy of a report Auditor General Merwan Saher is expected to release in August 2014 and will also include a review of the former premier’s flights to South Africa and Palm Springs.
Two years ago, PC candidates led by Ms. Redford promised a new era of open and transparent government. It appears that the fake passengers were not the only fabrication.
Is it possible that the three men vying to lead the PC Party did not know about the false flyers?
Both insiders, Thomas Lukaszuk served as Ms. Redford’s Deputy Premier and Ric McIver was Transportation Minister from May 2012 to December 2013. While they have denied knowledge of the flights, it is strange that at the very least these two senior cabinet minister had not even heard rumours about the Premier’s alleged fictional bookings and questionable travel habits.
But what of Finance Minister Doug Horner, whose department is responsible for the Alberta government’s fleet of airplanes? Surely someone within the Finance Department would have been aware of these alleged ghost travellers? Mr. Horner, along with 50 other PC MLAs and nearly every PC Party insider, is supporting Mr. Prentice’s bid for the PC Party leadership.
Mr. Prentice, who appears to only speak in generalizations and avoids details in all his public announcements, issued a statement on his Facebook Page in response to the allegations. “Albertans do not need excuses from those who were at the table when these decisions were made,” Mr. Prentice’s Facebook statement said.
Nearly everyone who would have been sitting around the cabinet table when these phantom flyers were on the books are now endorsing Mr. Prentice.
His opponent, Mr. Lukaszuk, was much more harsh on Ms. Redford, who remains the PC MLA for Calgary-Elbow. The former Deputy Premier said he would have his former boss thrown out of the PC Caucus and would ask a retired judge to investigate the allegations (Justice Minister Jonathan Denis, also supporting Mr. Prentice, today asked the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to decide whether there should be an investigation).
This leads me back to my initial question: Which of the three leadership candidates would make the best Leader of the Opposition?
For the past four decades, this would have been a nonsensical question. But in 2014, the Tories face a relentlessly aggressive Wildrose opposition flush with cash and preparing for an election. There is an increasingly real possibility that the PC Party could be in opposition after the next election.
Mr. Prentice served in the Conservative Official Opposition benches in Ottawa for two years during the dying days of Paul Martin’s Liberal government, a time which may oddly familiar similar to the current politics in Alberta. An ambitious politician, Mr. Prentice does not strike me as someone who would be interested in remaining in the opposition benches if the PC Party were to lose the next election.
Mr. Lukaszuk is well-known for his partisan attack dog-style in Question Period, and might thrive in the opposition benches. Mr. McIver served as the unofficial opposition to Mayor Dave Bronconnier on Calgary City Council, but, like Mr. Lukaszuk, he has no support from his PC MLA colleagues.
In light of recent revelations, perhaps some time spent in the opposition benches could inject a much needed dose of humility into Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives, who have become very comfortable with the trappings of political power. Despite coming within a hair of losing the last election, the Tories act as if they are an invincible force. This recent string of scandals may help prove that the PCs are not invincible.
After spending two months avoiding having to pay the costs of her $45,000 trip to South Africa, Premier Alison Redford called a press conference late yesterday to announce she would reimburse the government for costs of sending herself and her executive assistant Brad Stables to South Africa in December 2013.
Ms. Redford argued that because she had apologized for the cost of the South Africa trip, Albertans were ready to forgive her, even if she did not repay the cost. Recent polls showing the premier with a 20% approval rating suggested otherwise.
Responding to their leader’s dwindling popularity, Progressive Conservative MLAs have pushed back. Calgary-Foothills MLA Len Webber announced today that he was leaving the PC caucus to sit as an Independent, citing Ms. Redford’s record as the reason for his departure. There is little love between the premier and this MLA, who is currently campaigning to become the federal Conservative candidate in Calgary-Confederation.
“I hope this will be a catalyst, a domino effect and that others will follow to have the premier gone,” Mr. Webber told the Calgary Herald.
Rumours about disgruntled MLAs have been circulating for months, but today, news reports suggest that up to 18 or 20 PC MLAs were ready to revolt against the premier. Feeding these rumours was the noticeable absence of Labour minister Thomas Lukaszuk from this week’s big LRT funding announcement, at which he was the only Edmonton-area PC MLA not in attendance.
Feeding the unrest is the obvious double standard Ms. Redford held between herself and her party’s MLAs. More than a few PC MLAs were insulted by Ms. Redford’s decision during the last election to force them to pay out of pocket for payments received from the infamous no-meet committee. And in February 2013, Ms. Redford fired Calgary MLA Christine Cusanelli from cabinet after another travel expenses scandal, even though she had immediately repaid the cost before the story became public.
Ms. Redford’s own MLAs may be more eager to see her depart than the opposition. While Wildrose leader Danielle Smith is never hesitant to criticize Ms. Redford, her party is hoping the premier’s scandals will cause irreparable damage to the PC Party brand before the next election. A new leader would force the opposition to build a new strategy and the give the PC Party an opportunity to reinvent itself before the 2016 election.
Will paying the costs of the South Africa trip be enough to save Ms. Redford’s political career? It might, but it also might also be too little, too late. Albertans will applaud her decision to pay back the costs of this trip, but they might not easily forget how much pressure it took to convince Ms. Redford to write the cheque.
On March 22, 2013, Ms. Redford traveled on a government plane with her daughter, a political assistant and a member of her security detail from Calgary to Vancouver. In the public flight manifests, the purpose of the trip is listed as “attend meeting(s) with government officials.” If Ms. Redford was attending to government business in Vancouver as the manifest states, it is unclear why, almost a year later, she has decided to pay the costs of the flight.
The government airplane, and presumably its government-employed pilots, parked at Vancouver International Airport until Monday, March 25, 2013, when fight records show they returned to Alberta with the premier, her daughter and her entourage.
The premier has asked Finance minister Doug Horner to “find greater cost efficiencies” in government travel expenses, and has also referred the matter to Auditor General Merwan Saher.
Involving the Auditor General accomplishes two important public relations objectives: first, it allows the government to deflect questions from the media until the AG reports back, and second, it means the opposition cannot ask questions about Ms. Redford’s travel expenses in Question Period until the AG reports back.
As Ms. Redford appears to be the only MLA involved in this scandal, it is unclear who else the Auditor General will investigate.
The airplane scandal comes to light as a new poll shows Alberta’s long-governing Progressive Conservatives at an all-time low of 25% support province-wide and Ms. Redford with a 20% approval rating.
Meanwhile, leaked emails show Tory organizers were forced to delay the launch of the new “PC Legacy Fund” after it failed to sign up enough PC MLAs and party officials to contribute to the fundraising program.
This latest turbulence begs the question: can Ms. Redford’s leadership survive, and, who stands to gain the most if she crashes and burns?
When former cop Steve Young was elected as the MLA for Edmonton-Riverview, it was considered to be a huge coup for the Progressive Conservatives. With Mr. Young as their candidate, the Tories succeeded in scooping the traditionally Liberal voting constituency previously represented by popular MLA Kevin Taft.
All indications suggest that Mr. Young has worked hard in his constituency since this election and most people who have met him, including this writer, will agree that he is a nice guy. And he had a bright political career ahead of him.
But as an MLA, and during his time as the Government Whip, he has been of mixed value to the governing Tories. Sometimes he has even been a source of embarrassment for the government.
The CBC reported this week that Mr. Young was under investigation by the RCMP while he was the PC candidate in the 2012 election. The CBC report stated that he “did not publicly disclose the criminal investigation and he also refused to cooperate with the RCMP after he resigned from the Edmonton Police Service.”
According to the CBC, the RCMP investigated Mr. Young’s and other officers involvement in the release of private information about a young offender as part of a public relations campaign. The young offender recently filed a lawsuit against Mr. Young and his former colleagues.
Mr. Young was criticized for his handling of a confusion confrontation between PC MLAs and Ms. Redford after the group of backbenchers on an MLA committee voted to recreate the MLA transition allowances that the premier publicly cancelled during the 2012 election.
As Government Whip, he helped Ms. Redford deal with the unrest in the PC caucus, but in December 2013, the premier suddenly dropped him from cabinet before he was even officially appointed.
One week after announcing that Mr. Young would serve as the Associate Minister for Public Safety, he was quietly removed from the list of ministers at the swearing-in ceremony. It was later suggested that he was dropped from cabinet because his involvement in an incident and investigation involving a taser during his time as a police officer.
With the recent news reports about the RCMP investigation during the last election, can Ms. Redford can allow Mr. Young to remain as part of the government? His criticism of Ms. Redford’s lavish travel costs may have bought him some time, but, according to one political insider, his opponents are already building a case to have him ejected from the PC caucus.
NDP to nominate Riverview candidate next week
Next week, the Alberta New Democrats are expected to nominate Lori Sigurdson as their candidate in Edmonton-Riverview for the 2016 election. As their first officially nominated candidate, the NDP hope the early start will help them build on their strong third-place finish in the last election (where Ms. Sigurdson tripled her party’s support in the constituency). With Mr. Young providing more ammunition for his election opponents each day, the NDP (and the Liberals) will have plenty of ammunition to use over the next two years.
Last week, he was publicly criticizing Premier Alison Redford for her over-priced $45,000 trip to South Africa (see below) and faced a threat of expulsion from the Progressive Conservative caucus. This week, coincidentally, Edmonton-Riverview PC MLA Steve Young faces a new set of revelations dating back to his time as a Sergeant with the Edmonton Police Service (EPS).
The $45,000 trip to South Africa
It’s the story that won’t disappear. People across Alberta shook their heads in disbelief when they learned the government spent $45,000 to send Ms. Redford and her executive assistant, Brad Stables, to attend Nelson Mandela‘s funeral in South Africa. Bringing Mr. Stables added an estimated $20,000 to the cost. It is unclear why he was required to travel with Ms. Redford to South Africa. Nova Scotia premier Stephen McNeil made the same trip for less than $1,000. He did not require an executive assistant to accompany him.
Pension changes decreed
Finance minister Doug Horner is proposing significant changes to the province’s public pension plans, which could impact the retirement security of hundreds of thousands of Albertans. But you wouldn’t have read about it in the last election. The 2012 PC Party platform, “Alberta by Design,” does not once mention the word “pension.”
A report from Auditor General Merwan Saher this month chastised the government for not properly consulting with stakeholders about the proposed changes that will impact their members. The Local Authorities Pension Plan board has not endorsed Mr. Horner’s proposed changes.
Anti-labour law blocked by the courts
Court of Queen’s Bench Mr. Justice Denny Thomasissued an injunction halting the Redford government’s controversial Bill 46. Rammed through the Assembly in December 2013, the anti-labour law allowed the Tories to circumvent a neutral arbitration process which could have awarded fair salary increase for public sector employees. Bill 46 would have imposed a salary freeze. Advanced Education minister Dave Hancock said the government will appeal the court’s decision.
“Today starts a new era in marketing for farmers,” Agriculture minister Verlyn Olson boasted in a press released in August 2012, as the federal government dismantled the Canadian Wheat Board. This week, Mr. Olson claimed he would push for greater rail system accountability.
The Wildrose opposition has been equally enthusiastic about the Canadian Wheat Board’s demise (one of its MLAs, Rick Strankman, was once charged for violating the board). But not to be outdone by Mr. Olson, Wildrose MLAs Shayne Saskiw and Drew Barnes are now hosting town hall meetings from Streamstown to Spirit River about the challenges of individual farmers are facing dealing with the large railway corporations.
Alberta’s Progressive Conservative MLAs are kicking off another year of international travel as Premier Alison Redford, cabinet ministers and backbenchers check their luggage and rack up the air mile points with flights touching down at all points across the globe.
Departing on January 9, Ms. Redford will circle the globe on a sixteen day trip that will see her visit New Dehli, Mumbai and Bangalore, India and then to Davos, Switzerland to promote Alberta’s oil. She will be joined at the beginning of her trip by Intergovernmental Affairs minister Cal Dallas, Human Services minister Manmeet Bhullar and Edmonton-Ellerslie MLA Naresh Bhardwaj at the Petrotech 2014 conference.
Mr. Bhullar and Mr. Bhardwaj will join Ms. Redford for her trip to India (Update: No public itinerary has been released for Mr. Bhullar and Mr. Bhardwaj’s trip to India, so it is unclear how long they will be travelling through that country), but Mr. Dallas will split off the from the premier with a visit to Singapore. In May 2012, the Alberta government announced plans to open new trade offices in India and Singapore, as well as in Brazil and the United States.
Labour minister Thomas Lukaszuk will visit Harbin, Shanghai and Hangzhou, China from January 3 to 10, where he will sign memorandums of understanding with Chinese government science departments and attend the opening ceremony of the Harbin Ice Festival. It is unclear whether he will learn about the People’s Republic approach to workplace safety and workers rights to fit with his new role as Labour minister.
This will be the fourth visit to Harbin by an Alberta cabinet minister since 2012.
Fourth-term PC backbencher Alana DeLong is headed on two trips this month. The Calgary-Bow MLA will attend Pacific North West Economic Region legislative visits in Olympia, Washington and Boise, Idaho from January 13 to 16 and in Juneau, Alaska from January 21 to 23.
The estimated cost for these international trips, including travel, accommodation and meals for politicians and staff in January 2014 is estimated at $218,160.
Map: MLA travel from November 2011 to December 2013
Since my last update in September 2013, government cabinet ministers and MLAs made trips to Istanbul, San Antonio, Washington DC, Shanghai, Harbin, Seoul, Daegu, Beijing, Tokyo, Chicago, Warsaw and London. Since November 2011, Alberta’s cabinet ministers and MLAs have travelled to 24 countries on official government business. By the end of January 2014, it will be 26.