Monday, March 03, 2014

"Pax vobiscum brothers and sisters pax vobiscum ..... and BTW thank you for all those great free meals and travel!"

Did PC MLA's criticism of Premier Alison Redford mark the beginning of the end of her leadership?

By Rob Roberts
Friday, February 21, 2014

Alison Redford earned a 77% endorsement during her leadership review in November. Yet an Angus Reid poll released in January pegged her as one of the least popular premiers in Canada with 31% approval. (Stuart Gradon/Postmedia News)

CALGARY — When a government has been in power as long as Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives, the conflicts inside parties can become more relevant than the clashes between them.

For almost 43 years, any discontent of the province’s electorate has been deflected not by sweeping the ruling party from power, but rather by switching leaders — making leadership races, reviews and potential caucus rebellions as important as elections.

That’s why when former government whip Steve Young stepped forward this week to publicly criticize Premier Alison Redford’s $45,000 trip to South Africa — and suggest she wasn’t the kind of person he’d drink a beer with — journalists circled Government House as if someone had dropped just the smallest hint of blood in the tank.

Ms. Redford responded by accepting the criticism, and promising to keep Mr. Young in caucus.

“I think Steve’s comments are very valid,” Ms. Redford said before a Thursday caucus meeting. “This was something that was unfortunate. I apologized for it and took responsibility.”

The PC caucus emerged from its meeting mum and unified.

Caucus meetings, said Deputy Premier Dave Hancock, “are about being able to ask questions around things like budgets and other issues on the table and being able to have fulsome discussions around them,” he said. “People [also] bring forward what they’re hearing from their constituencies and we have full, frank and open conversations.”

PC MLA Steve young "is the chosen spokesperson for the discontents and the malcontents" critical of Alison Redford's leadership, one observer says. (Megan Voss/Postmedia News)

One observer, Keith Brownsey, a political science professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said it would be very unusual for Mr. Young to take such a stand unless he had support from fellow MLAs.

“It’s the beginning of the end of Alison Redford, I would argue,” he said. “I think he is the chosen spokesperson for the discontents and the malcontents outside cabinet.”

Ms. Redford’s predecessor, Ed Stelmach, faced just such a fate in early 2011: a little over a year after he earned a 77% approval rating in a leadership review, Mr. Stelmach faced an internal caucus revolt that left him no choice but to resign.

Ms. Redford herself earned a 77% endorsement during her leadership review in November. Yet an Angus Reid poll released in January pegged Ms. Redford as one of the least popular premiers in Canada, with 31% approval.

Her current problems range from trivial — some party loyalists have quietly expressed anger at the revelation Ms. Redford was the only leader who failed to contribute to her own party — to the critical: Last week, a judge granted an injunction on a key piece of labour legislation, likely contributing to the province’s growing deficit.

However, it’s the $45,000 South Africa travel tab — which Ms. Redford apologized for but would not repay — that has become a particular sticking point as she prepares for the next legislative session, starting March 3.

Ms. Redford’s travel bill — which covered use of a government plane to Ottawa, airfare for an aide and a first-class flight back to Alberta despite an offer of a free trip on the Prime Minister’s plane — was perceived as particularly egregious when compared to Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil’s tab for making the same excursion to Nelson Mandela’s funeral, less than $1,000.

“The $45,000 is, I think, inconsistent with Alberta values,” Mr. Young told Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid on Wednesday. “It’s certainly the topic of conversation among my colleagues. I don’t know how I could say I’m happy about it.”

An MLA who asked not to be identified granted that many in the caucus side with Mr. Young’s comments - although not with the dissenting MLA himself.

“A lot of people agree with what [Mr. Young] said, but they disagree with how he went about it,” the MLA said. “No one would have advised him to go to Don Braid about it.”

However, the MLA believed Mr. Young did not enjoy the support of the caucus more generally.

Mr. Young, named party whip in 2012, was elevated to cabinet in December, 2013, then dropped almost immediately from both positions, after undisclosed allegations with regard to his service with the Edmonton Police Service came to light.

“For the most part, he did not have a very good reputation as the whip and he alienated many people as the whip,” the MLA said.

Following on the South African trip came another controversy; It was revealed Friday that one of Ms. Redford’s top aides had racked up $9,000 to spend 42 nights in ritzy Edmonton hotel rooms.

“It’s a thousand minor cuts and it’s building to an image of incompetence, entitlement and arrogance,” Mr. Brownsey said.

“[Mr. Young’s] points are valid and there is probably a lot of discontent in the Conservative party right now over Ms. Redford’s leadership which, I think, has been by every measure, questionable.”

If Ms. Redford’s debt-laden budget and first-class travel has been criticized by the right, she’s also alienated the ad hoc left-leaning coalition that banded together to keep her in office in the face of a surging Wildrose party in 2012.

Former Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach was forced to resign after facing an internal caucus revolt. (Colleen De Neve/Postmedia News)

Her government’s Bill 46 imposed a settlement on public sector workers and removed the right of the union to seek arbitration. On February 14, an Alberta court granted an indefinite injunction against it, effectively declaring it null.

“I honestly can’t think of the last time an injunction was granted to stop the application of a law,” said Gil McGowan, Alberta Federation of Labour president. “There’s no judge in the country that could take this dramatic step lightly.”

Ms. Redford has promised to appeal. Mr. McGowan expects the bill to be argued before the Supreme Court of Canada, as he believes it contravenes the Charter-backed right to freedom of assembly.

“What Redford should be doing is trying to rebuild a broken relationship with her own employees rather than pursuing this further through the courts,” said Alberta Union of Public Employees president Guy Smith.

The court ruling aside, these bills may have real political ramifications for Ms. Redford in the long run, Mr. McGowan said.

“If they dig in their heels and ignore the messages coming from the courts, then I think the rift will remain permanent and that will have huge implications for the ability of the Redford government to get re-elected next time.”

If, that is, she lasts that long.

Twitter: @jengerson


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