Alberta premier Alison Redford doesn’t care if you call her a closet Liberal or a Red Tory. She just wants to get things done
It’s a bright, unforgiving winter morning in Edmonton, and the exterior of the new health complex—all glass and silvery anodized aluminum—echoes the cold, crisp weather. At the opening ceremony, happy, prosperous-looking people mingle in the lobby, along with some less happy, less prosperous-looking people, probably the medical staff. This being Alberta, the first names on their badges are twice as big as the last ones. There is music, a violin and a harp, and on the small stage a provincial flag and something covered in cheesy-looking gold polyester. A tallish woman in a black dress shows up, chatting with a few groups here and there, and although no one stares she is clearly the centre of unacknowledged attention.
After we take our seats, Alison Redford, Alberta’s fourteenth premier and the first woman to hold the position, rises to deliver her remarks. I have been trying to arrange an interview for five months, but this is my first glimpse of her live. The dress is severe, oddly reminiscent of a postulant’s garb, and the black colour does her freckled, fresh-faced good looks no favours. But her stockings, grey with black polka dots, and T-strap heels are charming and unexpected. Her speech is even more unexpected. After reading her congratulations and reaffirming the Progressive Conservative government’s commitment to health care, she turns to Donald Kaye, an elderly man in the front row, who has given the hospital $30 million. Behind the gold polyester is a placard announcing the hospital’s name, the Kaye Edmonton Clinic. As she thanks him for his generosity, she touches her heart and is suddenly close to tears. Then she steps off the stage and, still emotional, takes him in her arms. My first indication of the conundrum that is Alison Redford.
A different facet emerges during the media scrum. Redford is at the centre of a storm of accusations about the choice of a consortium, which includes her ex-husband’s Calgary law firm, that will sue Big Tobacco for health care costs. Although in 2010, as justice minister, she recommended the consortium, she insists that the final decision was made by her successor seven months later. Microphones surround her head like nervous petals as she answers, carefully and politely, questions she has been asked multiple times over the past few days. Then, abruptly, she has had enough and walks off, cutting briskly through the clamouring reporters. No, there is one more question, this one about education, and she returns to answer it. But when another reporter asks again about the tobacco controversy, she heads for the door, exasperated. Coatless, and with a long, determined stride, she escapes into the minus 17-degree weather, where her car awaits. Another view of the premier: co-operative to a point, but when her patience snaps it’s over.
A few hours later, under the dome of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, the sergeant-at-arms, an oddly Dickensian figure in a long black coat, carries in the ceremonial mace to signal the start of the day’s session. As with all of our provincial legislatures, Alberta’s is a mix of ritual, folksiness, mudslinging, and the actual work of government. This afternoon, the galleries hold two school classes, and various members rise to introduce them, as well as their own visiting families and other worthy people from their ridings. The members pound their desks in welcome, and Redford waves and smiles at the children, causing delighted excitement: “She was looking right at me!”
While the members refer to each other formulaically as “the honourable member from so-and-so,” the real business of the day seems to be casting aspersions as widely as possible. Judged even by the heightened levels of acrimony that have marked the legislature since the Official Opposition, the right-wing Wildrose party, began harrying Redford’s new government, today is a doozy. The Wildrose has accused Redford of misleading the house about her involvement in the hiring of the anti-tobacco consortium, and the Speaker of the House, Gene Zwozdesky, has ordered an end to debate about the controversy until he rules on it. Repeatedly disobeying his embargo, frustrated and furious at a situation of their own making, most of the Wildrose caucus walk out in protest, something that hasn’t happened in a decade. The NDP joins the Wildrose in asking Redford to step aside, pending the outcome of an investigation. Then, when Zwozdesky rules in the premier’s favour, a member of the Wildrose holds up a sign that reads “Shill.” At times, Redford seems to enjoy her skill in the cut and thrust of the argument, but at others she looks undeniably irritated. She has a habit of raising her eyebrows and furrowing her forehead, to register that something, pleasant or not, has just happened. Today the eyebrows are getting a workout.
The next day, Danielle Smith, the libertarian leader of the Wildrose, returns to the attack. It is a striking novelty, in a building where the portraits lining the rotunda are mostly of men, that two women face each other as heads of their parties. While they come from similar working-class backgrounds, their personal styles are as different as their politics. The Alberta writer Fred Stenson says that men see Smith, six years younger than Redford, as the “gal at the water cooler who doesn’t get all frazzled if the jokes are rough,” and Redford as the mother who warns you not to drive drunk. But Smith does not come across as a party girl today. Departing from her usual blistering script, she draws jeers when she says of Redford, in faux sympathy, “I appreciate this is difficult for her.” The premier, now wearing a grey suit, black tights, and flats, responds that it is not at all difficult, and moreover that she is proud of having decided to sue Big Tobacco in the first place. Underlining each word, she repeats her mantra: “I did not make the decision.”
The debate sputters on, sometimes fiery, sometimes boring, but whether it has any substance depends on where you sit in the legislature. Smith insists that it is the main issue that preoccupies Albertans, while the PCs claim voters are more concerned about highways, roads, schools, and police. This is the latest in a series of incidents in which the Wildrose has cried scandal, distracting the PCs from their agenda, with the premier’s response either non-existent or misjudged. Her government has already faced accusations that it accepted excessive campaign contributions from Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz, and that it indulged in an extravagant $518,000 trip to the London Olympics. Just two weeks before the tobacco crise broke, Redford’s sister Lynn, then a senior executive with Calgary Health Region, was accused of spending government money to attend and host Tory events. Now, with the fall session about to end and only a few important bills passed, Redford’s popularity has fallen to 47 percent, down 13 percent since her election.
David Taras, a communications professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, says of the tobacco controversy that former premier Ralph Klein would have skated through it in about thirty seconds. Redford, however, has yet to learn to speed-skate. It’s not that she cannot mount a defence: ex-spouses are not considered relevant in conflict of interest rules, most significant Alberta law firms are riddled with Tory supporters, and it is possible (if unlikely) that the consortium she chose from a list of three could have been derailed at any time by the next justice minister. She might even have said, “Yes, although I had nothing to gain and often forget that I was married to Robert Hawkes twenty-one years ago”—which I have heard her say publicly—“perhaps I should have recused myself from that recommendation.” Albertans would probably have accepted that explanation. Instead, she sticks with a disingenuous, hair-splitting defence reminiscent of President Bill Clinton’s insistence that he did not “have sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky. It’s a legalistic tactic that does not play well.
I am ushered into the premier’s offices for that long-sought interview. The rooms are hung with Canadian paintings Redford has chosen, including one of the obligatory grain elevator (Alberta Elevator, by Wes Irwin) and other modern but accessible canvases. On the shelves behind the table where we sit, there is a book about the painter Doris McCarthy and a copy of Charlotte Gray’s Gold Diggers. The premier has exchanged her suit jacket for an asymmetrical, buttonless sweater and looks oddly tranquil for someone who, together with her sister and her ex-husband, has endured weeks of unflattering conjecture.
We begin at the beginning with Merrilla, her unusual middle name, which I take to be a feminization of her father’s name, Merrill. Well, partly, but it was also a tip of her mother’s hat to Marilla, the spinster who takes in the orphaned girl in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. The similarity between the names was irresistible, but Anne was the character Helen Redford had hoped her first child would resemble. And did she? Looking slightly bashful, Redford admits, “I think so.” Like Anne, she says, she was headstrong, “pretty optimistic,” and a redhead (“I think Mum was always glad I was a redhead, although my daughter now tells me I’m not. It used to be more gingery”). “If I think about Anne,” she continues, “she really believed in living life in a way where you had faith in people connecting.”
The idea of our responsibility for others has always impressed Redford, even before her mother gave her the boxed set of pink, green, and blue Anne of Green Gables paperbacks when she was nine. Her maternal grandparents, William “Scottie” and Robina Anderson, who emigrated from Scotland in 1948, provided a powerful example. They began life in Edmonton with mythic deprivations: their daughter, Helen, remembered waking up in their makeshift hut during their first Canadian winter and finding the sheets frozen. Nonetheless, they prospered, moving to the nearby town of Redwater, where they ran a corner store at which credit was sometimes extended indefinitely. They also renovated houses for resale, but if someone without means needed a place to live they were willing to rent. Redford’s grandfather used to sing “Nobody’s Child,” a Hank Snow tear-jerker from 1949, about a blind boy who is never chosen for adoption and wants to die so he can walk the streets of heaven and see like other children. As she tells me this, she smiles at the song’s over-the-top poignance, although she is clearly still affected by it. The moral she took away from it, she says, is that “if you’re lucky enough to be in a position where you can help other people—and people end up in situations through no fault of their own, and even sometimes through a fault of their own—you have to help them.”
Connecting with those in need is one thing, but making closer connections was not always easy for the young Alison. As an oil patch electrician, her father sometimes did shift work, two weeks on the job at some distant location, two weeks off at home. It was a sacrifice, she says, and it taught her sympathy for the Maritimers who commute to Alberta. (She doesn’t mention that as premier she sees her family mostly on weekends. Her husband, Glen Jermyn, a lawyer in the federal Department of Justice, and her eleven-year-old daughter, Sarah, live in Calgary.) When work took her father to Nova Scotia and Borneo, the family—which now included Alison, born in 1965; Melody, eighteen months younger; and Lynn, six years younger—moved with him. The two older girls were extraordinarily close, and in Borneo, where Alison lived from ages five to eleven, the outgoing Melody paved the way socially for her older, shyer sister.
In Borneo, it had seemed normal to be different, even when strangers in the streets touched her red hair in wonder. But when the family returned to Canada, settling in Calgary, being different took on a darker tinge. Gone was the world of school uniforms and servants, and in its stead, as Redford told the Globe and Mail’s Sandra Martin, was a place of mystifying pop culture and precociously sophisticated preteens. No doubt, the move reinforced her sense of herself as something of an outsider.
Although the Redfords attended the United Church, Alison chose a Catholic high school, Bishop Carroll, and it proved a good fit. Its competitive independent study program suited her, and the theology taught by a liberal priest spoke to her deepest values: “That piece about compassion and humanity is just part of my core,” she says. “It’s fundamental to what you do, how you live, and how you think.” She loved high school and graduated with a 95 percent average.
University, which she was the first in her family to attend, was a different story. She began at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, but the classes were big, and she didn’t know why she was there: “I just didn’t fit in. I needed to go home and have that base.” She transferred to Mount Royal in Calgary, and then to Queen’s in Kingston, Ontario, for her third and final year. While she felt at home at Queen’s, she left without a degree to attend law school at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. Her father had told her since she was a child that she would do well in law, and now, as she became more interested in human rights and international law and politics, she saw his point.
By the time she reached law school, she was an old hand at politics, although her family was not political. Her grandparents never discussed the subject, probably considering it, along with sex and religion, too private for conversation. What drew her to politics was their sense of community responsibility, along with the larger-than-life figure of Peter Lougheed. His vision of Alberta as a vital part of the country and the world, his social progressiveness coupled with fiscal conservatism and his dignified but accessible leadership style, left a permanent mark on Redford, who watched him at work when she was president of the PC Youth of Alberta while still a teenager. Jim Hawkes, a former Calgary MP, has described the job as one that usually went to university students, “but not with Alison in the room.” Later, she became engaged to Hawkes’ son, Robert, whom she met while working on a provincial leadership campaign. Robert remembers the fun of working with someone who was “obviously beyond smart,” and passionate about how politics could change people’s lives for the better. Both of them, he says, were always more focused on policy than on the party.
But if there was no natural place for her in backroom politics, the practice of law didn’t feel like home either. After graduating from law school, she spent almost twenty years ricocheting between conventional legal assignments, and policy work that ran the gamut from human rights to HIV/AIDS education and took her to ten countries, including Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Vietnam. Her five-year marriage to Hawkes had ended in the early ’90s, and she had grown interested in South Africa through work she had done with Joe Clark, then secretary of state for external affairs. She moved to South Africa, first as an adviser to the African National Congress, living out of her Mountain Equipment Co-op backpack for the first six months because she didn’t expect to stay. As it turned out, she remained there for six years, doing everything from helping to write the constitution to working on the creation of a public broadcasting service and a human rights commission. Once the big pieces were in place, she focused on “nuts-and-bolts development work,” supporting water projects, theatre companies, sports, and campaigns against domestic violence. “All of the issues [were] about huge, transformative social change, but at a community level,” she told Maclean’s in late 2011.
In 1996, she returned to Calgary to practise law but found the adversarial nature of the Canadian system grating. She was used to the South African tradition of compromise and mediation, which she has described as “the beginning of the ‘getting to yes’ model.” After four years of private practice, she returned to development work, which this time included judicial training in Vietnam and Bosnia, as well as writing the legislation for Afghanistan’s first parliamentary elections in 2005.
With international experience that was breathtaking compared with that of Alberta’s recent premiers, running for office in the province was not an obvious choice. But she says she learned from her work abroad that even the most disadvantaged people know what they need to improve their lives, and it is government’s job to help them get it. She wanted to bring that insight to Alberta, “to make things better for women in domestic violence, kids who need extra support, that kind of thing.” As for choosing the Progressive Conservatives, she insists that her values have always been aligned with the party’s, although when she is accused of being more closet Liberal than Red Tory she just shrugs. The distinction does not seem to interest her. “People who stick with party labels now are missing the point,” she says. “You’re not going to solve any of the problems on purely ideological lines.”
If this pragmatic view bewilders members of her caucus, she has an ally in her ex-husband. Her response to every issue in the leadership campaign, Hawkes says approvingly, was “‘What makes sense? ’ If it’s right wing and it makes sense, she’ll do it. Or if it’s left wing and it makes sense, she’ll do it. Sticking tightly to dogma may give people comfort, because they know where they’re going on most issues, but it’s not effective, and we’ve seen that in spades down in the US, where ideology and bitter partisan politics have gotten in the way of fashioning solutions to problems such as the debt crisis.”
No one expected Redford to win the leadership when Ed Stelmach resigned as premier in 2011. The Edmonton Journal was so confident that party stalwart Gary Mar would get the job that it had already prepared a story about the country’s first Chinese Canadian premier. To the public, Redford seemed impressive—she had been minister of justice since winning a seat in the legislature in 2008—but difficult to get to know. Then, on the eve of the candidates’ debate, her mother died. “It’s a difficult thing to say,” Journal columnist Paula Simons told me, “but one of the things that really helped her was the death of her mother.” Redford’s decision to go ahead with the debate, and her emotional references to her mother, showed that the brainiac had a heart. Plus, she debated with conviction, while Mar seemed to be just going through the motions. Liberals, NDPers, Green Party members, and otherwise uncommitted Albertans took notice, paid the $5 for a PC membership, and voted her into the leadership.
She asked Hawkes to oversee her transition team, which meant staffing her office, organizing the swearing-in, helping to pick the cabinet, and the hundreds of other details involved in setting up a new government. He remembers that when they disagreed, she would say to everyone around the table, “See, that’s why I divorced him.” The boyish Hawkes laughs, and allows that it’s “a funny line, and probably has a bit of truth to it.” What is his secret for getting along with an ex-spouse? He recommends seeing each other rarely for twenty years. They tried being friends after the divorce, but “the rawness of the breakup” made it too difficult. Now, both remarried and with their original interest in political life rekindled, they enjoy each other’s company.
Half a year later, in the spring of 2012, Redford called an election, but no one in her cabinet and only one member of the PC caucus supported her. Like Lougheed, she wanted Alberta to play a more prominent role in Canada and the world, whereas the caucus was accustomed to politics in the isolationist Little Alberta mould made familiar by Klein and Stelmach. To the old guard, she represented too much change, which, as she told CBC at the time, was “disappointing for me.” Meanwhile, Danielle Smith was galloping ahead in the polls, and it looked as if Alberta was about to elect a Wildrose government. And it might have, if two Wildrose candidates had not gone public with homophobic and racist views, and if Smith had not felt obliged to defend them. Alberta’s flirtation with the Wildrose was over, at least for the time being, and to widespread surprise the Tories emerged with a more than comfortable sixty-one seats, while the Wildrose had just seventeen.
We are nearing the end of the interview. I was promised a half-hour, and Jay O’Neill, her communications director, is sitting at the table with us, checking his watch. I ask her what has surprised her most since her unexpected victory, and only then does she mention her current troubles. Choosing her words carefully, she says she accepts that everything she does as premier comes under scrutiny, but it bothers her that at the moment in Alberta there seems to be little regard for personal space. “This has been quite a couple of weeks, with people testing out whether the political sphere is going to turn to the personal. I’m kind of surprised that other politicians will go there. But I don’t think it’s going to last,” she adds. “The public wants to know that the debate is thoughtful, a principled debate.”
She starts to answer my last question—What do you do to relax?—even before I’ve finished asking it. “Play with my daughter, although ‘play’ may not be the right word. I try to do what she wants to do, take her to synchronized swimming; we play tennis, watch movies; we do a lot of cooking, ski, and argue about whether she makes her bed or takes the dog for a walk. I often say that with an eleven-year-old it’s important for me to be present so she can ignore me. For me, it’s just being able to be there.”
And that’s it. She has another engagement, and my time is up. She has been friendly, a good listener, and she says, “It’s been kind of fun for me to think about all this stuff.” From someone else, that might sound wistful, an unspoken comparison of the luxury of looking back at her roots with the necessity of having to defend herself daily. But “wistful” is not a word one associates with Alison Redford.
Will the real Alison Redford please stand up? Is she Anne of Green Gables with a law degree? Is she a nineteenth-century heroine, written by George Eliot or Henry James, dedicated to an idealistic mission but willing to cut a few corners because the end justifies the means? Is she an outsider with an ambivalent relationship to being an insider? A thirty-year Progressive Conservative who is no longer interested in party labels? An introvert who has chosen a career whose demands for exposure would challenge most extroverts? Is she the austere black dress or the saucy polka-dot stockings and T-straps? Or all of the above?
Ask people what they think of the premier, and the first response is always the same: “Smart.” (Paula Simons has a story about her first interview with Redford as minister of justice. “Not all of Stelmach’s cabinet were intellectually formidable,” she says tactfully, “and I was used to being the smartest person in the room. After about five minutes with Redford, the thought bubble over my head said, ‘Oh, crap! She’s smarter than I am!’”) After “smart,” opinions tend to diverge. Women find her warm, sympathetic, involved in the issues that concern them most: health care and education. Men often report that she is aloof, introverted, uncommunicative, and—another common thread—“she doesn’t suffer fools gladly.” Gender expectations are obviously at work here. Writer Chris Turner, a Green Party candidate in the recent Calgary Centre by-election, points out that while many would describe Stephen Harper as arrogant and introverted, it doesn’t seem to hurt him. A woman who is called arrogant and introverted finds herself in a more tenuous position.
Stephen Carter, Redford’s campaign manager and former chief of staff, agrees that she is an introvert: “She’d rather play Words with Friends on her iPad than go to a significant event.” But it doesn’t bother him that men find her intimidating. The women’s vote was crucial in his triumphal campaigns for Redford and Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, and that is the demographic he courts. Thirty-five percent of household decisions are made unilaterally by women, he says, citing a Pew Research study, and another 45 percent by women in consultation with men. Carter believes that when mothers meet in the schoolyard and talk about the grade two teacher or the stresses on the sandwich generation, “it’s not gossip; it’s the stuff that matters.” During the campaign, Redford tied her policy initiatives, such as family care clinics and an aging-in-place strategy, to her own life as the mother of a young child and the daughter of elderly parents. Women related to her and, Carter believes, made her premier.
Pam Lougheed Stack is a special education and early literacy teacher who was not particularly politically active until 2008, when she met Redford, who was running for MLA in her Calgary-Elbow constituency. When Redford won, Stack told her father, “Dad, this is someone you have to meet.” Dad was Peter Lougheed, the man whose high-minded political leadership had attracted Redford as a teenager. The two became reacquainted, and forged a bond that strengthened after Redford became premier. Redford quizzed Stack frequently on the challenges of combining family and political life. “We’d be in the car alone together, and she’d ask me, ‘How did your parents manage it? How did your father do it, and your mother, and how did it impact you? ’” Redford’s interest in social issues appeals to women, Stack agrees, and they talk often about early childhood and parenting concerns. “I didn’t expect her to become premier so fast, but I saw that she had premier quality written all over her.”
Amy Lonsberry, a Calgary health care consultant and community advocate, encountered Redford in 2009 while they were working on a ring road that required delicate negotiations with the Tsuu T’ina First Nation. It was at a difficult moment when the talks had stalled, and Lonsberry was visibly upset. Redford, who had just met her, gave her a hug and assured her, “We’ll figure this out. We’ll keep working on this.” Lonsberry was won over. “So much has been written about how smart she is and her impressive resumé,” she says. “They haven’t done a fabulous job at showing that she is very funny and warm.” When I mention Carter’s theory about the importance of the women’s vote, Lonsberry, the mother of two young children, takes it up with intensity. “I wish the whole world was ruled by soccer moms!” she says. “We would be a far better government. We’re good multi-taskers, we can see the big picture, and we’re motivated to make decisions for the next generation. Those are some of the hardest decisions to sell; those are decisions that won’t often get you re-elected. And I think a soccer mom might say, ‘Well, that’s okay. I don’t much care about getting re-elected. I’m going to take these four years and make the best decisions I can every day for my children’s future and my grandchildren’s future.’”
I am reminded of something Redford said to me when we were talking about Anne of Green Gables. I had asked her if she thought of herself as imaginative, one of Anne’s great qualities, and at first she hesitated. She had thought she was imaginative when she was younger; now she wasn’t sure. But she hoped she was creative and, like Anne, that she dreamt big dreams, especially when it came to encouraging Albertans to imagine a future twenty years away, a future for the next generation.
Lonsberry has introduced me to yet another Alison Redford: the political soccer mom. But Paula Simons doesn’t buy it. Carter’s focus on women was beside the point, she says, because “Alison Redford didn’t win the election. Danielle Smith lost it.” Nor does Simons buy Redford as the patron saint of sandwich generation moms and the custodian of health care and education. “She’s decided that’s what her constituency is, but she’s not nearly as socially progressive as people make her out to be. She’s an anti-libertarian law-and-order hard-ass. She’s not nearly as left and Red Tory as she presented herself in the election.” To illustrate her point, Simons points to Justice Minister Redford’s civil forfeiture legislation, which allows the government to appropriate the proceeds of crime or alleged crime, even if no criminal charges are laid or the suspects are found not guilty. She is similarly skeptical about Bill 26, the new impaired driving legislation, which gives police expansive powers to suspend licences and seize vehicles.
Predictably, Smith is another non-believer. She is scathing about Redford’s strengths (there is just one: if she ever accomplished what she promised, she would be “formidable”) and her many weaknesses. The premier flip-flops on issues. She is a “process junkie” who can’t make decisions. She doesn’t have a real agenda for Alberta. She’s an out-and-out liberal when it comes to fiscal issues. She hides from her caucus, as well as the press and the public. Unlike many people, Smith doesn’t see the premier as a policy wonk. According to her, Redford talks in broad concepts but doesn’t do the hard, wonkish work of fleshing out the details of a proposal: “The last word I would use to describe her is ‘policy wonk.’” I ask Smith what would happen if the two women were forced to spend an evening together. She says that Redford would sit across the table, giving her “the death glare” she often gets during question period. “You know when you have a really uncomfortable date with someone and they’re not very talkative or comfortable and you’re trying to continue the conversation and ask questions? She never answers any of my questions…. I anticipate that it would be a very uncomfortable date.”
When Peter Lougheed lay in state last September, there was much talk about his era as a kind of Camelot, a time when the premier of Alberta was a respected figure in Canada, not a laughingstock, and the province felt it had come of age. Many people hoped that Redford would return Alberta to that time, but she confronts challenges Lougheed never had to. After four decades in power, enveloped in a subculture of cozy practices and cronyships, the PCs are suddenly under merciless scrutiny from an Opposition that grows more credible every week. At the same time, the makeup of Alberta is changing. The election of Naheed Nenshi, to cite the most obvious example, signals an emerging critical mass of urban voters who don’t fit into the complacent Tory template, any more than they do into the rural, religious, libertarian Wildrose mould. “What has happened,” says Simons, “is that Alberta is actually growing up into a functional democracy, and it’s a lot harder to get things done. For forty years here, the Conservatives didn’t have to do politics in the normal way, and what you wanted got done. The idea that you would have to court the voter, or build a political consensus, is new.”
Now beginning her sophomore year as premier, Redford will have to do both, a task made even more difficult by her inexperience and her temperament. Comparisons with Barack Obama—another cerebral, occasionally withdrawn politician with little or no appetite for the glad-handing and salesmanship so necessary in democratic politics—are unavoidable. Her lack of interest in party politics only compounds her problems, although Stephen Carter and Robert Hawkes argue that she has found a new way to get things done by appealing directly to voters, in many cases members of other parties, who see her ideas as relevant and sensible. She may be the thin edge of a wedge we will come to call post-political government, but in the meantime she needs to return to her more outgoing election campaign persona. (Carter says she needs to “be more Alison and less premier.”) Unless she seizes control of the narrative, as the current political parlance has it, the Wildrose will continue to portray her as a governessy know-it-all who jets around the world impressing non-Albertans while doing nothing for the folks at home.
This winter, as the allegations mounted, the premier became increasingly inaccessible. The Wildrose issued a fake wanted poster for her, and the Alberta Legislature Press Gallery lodged a complaint about her unavailability. But Redford is a work-in-progress. Against what may be her natural instincts, she has learned how to give a good speech, work a room, and handle a media scrum. Her image has softened since she ran for the leadership, her hair now longer, her collars now unbuttoned, silky scarves now part of her wardrobe. Similarly, and no doubt in response to the criticism that she is remote, she has begun to reveal new layers of the onion. In December, she satirized herself—and Alberta—on This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Deadpan, with a glass of Scotch in hand, she said she preferred spending Christmas drinking with her friends in the oil and gas industry and talking “about how to relax environmental regulations.” Raising her glass, with a sinister glint in her eye, she added, “Looks like another mild winter. You’re welcome, Canada.” No one expects an appearance on a television show to make the scandals go away—or, for that matter, to affect the price of oil, which is her greatest concern as Alberta heads into debt for the first time in almost a decade. Still, it shows how far she has come since she entered the political arena nine years ago.
When I asked Robert Hawkes if at the time he was dating Redford he ever thought she would be premier one day, he answered no, he thought she would be prime minister. He has changed his mind about that, but only because she has focused on health care and education, which are provincial responsibilities. It may be that, like her hero Peter Lougheed, Redford will choose to stay home and work for the welfare of Albertans. She may fulfill Amy Lonsberry’s fantasy about the political soccer mom who concerns herself not with getting re-elected, but with creating programs for the next generation and beyond. Time will tell. Meanwhile, the most accomplished premier the province has seen since Lougheed, and perhaps ever, is still feeling her way to becoming an effective political leader. Chances are, she’ll improve. And whether or not she becomes Canada’s first post-political premier, chances are she will remain something of a conundrum.
This appeared in the April 2013 issue.