By Dean Bennet
EDMONTON – One year after Alison Redford won her first popular mandate, the Alberta premier remembers not only voting day, but the uneasy feeling just before she dropped the writ.
It was last March 26. Redford stood in her cabinet meeting room and realized she might not see it again.
“The most profound moment in this room was that last moment,” said Redford in an interview, touching her high-backed chair beside the long, sprawling, oval wooden desk, hollow in the middle like a doughnut.
The Wildrose party was surging in popularity and Peter Watson — the government’s top civil servant — had parting words for his boss.
“He said to me, ‘Premier I want you to know that we’re now preparing transition binders (in case a new political party formed the government). I don’t want to have to tell you that, but we are preparing transition binders. That’s our responsibility,'” recalled Redford.
She said she signed off on a couple of orders, thanked her team, walked out, dissolved the legislature and hit the hustings.
“It was a cold, dull day,” she said, recalling the weather.
In more ways than one.
The Tories started the election from behind, reeling from scandals on health care and a legislature committee getting paid handsomely for not meeting at all.
Their hole card was Redford’s popularity and an optimistic budget that promised funding, savings and no new taxes — something opponents strafed as rainbow-unicorn fantasyland.
Four weeks later, on April 23, a bone-tired Redford sat with 10 other aides and friends in a suite in Calgary’s Westin Hotel to watch the results come in.
The only sure thing seemed to be a long night.
Her husband Glen and pre-teen daughter Sarah were in the suite. Sarah wanted to stay up and watch the results. No, said Redford. You need to go home soon and get to bed.
She also wanted Sarah to leave early “because I didn’t know what the results were going to be, so I wanted to think about what I was going to say to her if it didn’t turn out the way that I wanted it to.”
It wasn’t a long night after all.
The key battleground of Calgary went mainly Tory and, provincewide, Redford’s team captured 61 seats to 17 for the Wildrose.
Sarah was there to see it.
“She pulled me aside and (whispered) ‘Mommy, I’m very proud of you.’ And I started crying,” laughed Redford. “That was my first official congratulations.”
The 28-day campaign had been one of ebb and flow: The Wildrose crested early before crashing on polling day, while Redford’s team slowly gained momentum.
“Every Monday morning that we woke up it was a different campaign,” said Redford.
Observers are split on whether Albertans voted Tory or ran from the Wildrose, a fellow right-centre party but one that stresses fiscal austerity, balanced budgets and limited government.
The Wildrose slipped on the racist, homophobic views of a couple of candidates and vacillated on climate change, saying the science isn’t settled.
“I think we had a few self-inflicted wounds,” Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith told supporters while conceding defeat on election night.
In the months that followed, Redford could say the same thing.
Smith promised effective opposition and in last fall’s legislature sitting, her caucus delivered a devastating day-in-day-out attack on the Tories.
The legislature was a din of shouts, accusations and epithets, with newbie Speaker Gene Zwozdesky shouting for order like a substitute teacher dumped on the Sweathogs.
The Wildrose revealed Redford’s sister, Lynn, had dinged taxpayers to buy booze and bug spray for Tory party fundraisers.
They made hay over the revelation that Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz — seeking public money for a new hockey arena — along with his family and associates contributed $450,000 to the Tories’ campaign war chest.
Redford was pummelled for days in the house after she announced she did not, as justice minister, sign off in 2010 on a sweetheart lawsuit against Big Tobacco to the law firm that employs her ex-husband, who is also one of her key advisers.
When in-house emails indicated the law firm was indeed notified it had won the contract under Redford’s watch, she countered that the final documents weren’t signed until after she’d left the portfolio.
A decision is not a decision until i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed, she insisted.
It was, chortled Redford’s opponents, the kind of semantic hairsplitting that makes lawyers clink glasses in the Oak Club but causes eyes to roll at the counter in Tim Hortons.
Redford was left to prove a negative, in tones of escalating defensiveness.
“I (pause) didn’t (pause) make (pause) the (pause) decision!!” an exasperated Redford shouted to the roof of the debate chamber in early December.
The Wildrose displayed a lancet-sharp instinct for the political jugular and for showmanship rivalling Brian Mason’s four-member opposition NDP.
When Redford missed multiple days in question period, Smith’s team issued a mock Wild West wanted poster on her.
When the government announced alternative measures for first-time shoplifters, they distributed Tory first-crime-free coupons (must be presented to arresting officer to be valid).
As the crises mounted in the fall sitting, Redford’s team hit the bunker.
Scrums were scarce, short and tense.
When the NDP demanded Redford resign over the tobacco contract, her team called a news conference, cancelled it, then put it back on, with different reasons coming out each time.
Over the Christmas holiday season, sweeping changes came to her communications office.
As the new year dawned, the team unwrapped Alison 2.0.
She became the champion of the Keystone XL pipeline, the stateswoman jetting and re-jetting to Washington to lobby decision makers.
She led tour groups of kids through the cabinet room, letting them sit at the big table and be her “ministers” for a day.
She relaxed with the news media. When a new country radio station went on the air, she was the first to call in and request her favourite song (Brad Paisley’s “Welcome to the Future”).
There were more one-on-one interviews. Scrums became longer.
In a hockey-mad province, she professed her love for the Boston Bruins (fan since her teens, hasn’t seen a game in person, wants to) and now plans to go camping with her cabinet ministers.
She didn’t clean house, but she did tidy it up.
Two underperforming ministers were bounced from the doughnut cabinet table.
Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk, dismissed as a chihuahua attack dog with no portfolio power base, was handed the advanced education remit.
Redford’s communications office now fights harder to get out in front of the daily news agenda.
Every feel-good government announcement has the premier sliding in. She was at the podium when they announced a new contract for teachers, a new deal for doctors, a new framework with the Metis, a new social policy framework, and so on.
The Wildrose bark still has bite, but the Tories are off the ropes.
Last week, the Wildrose scored points with fresh examples of unconscionable spending by former health executives.
One allegation hit home, with even Redford admitting it was appalling. But the second was knocked right back across the aisle by Health Minister Fred Horne as an unrelated immigration/citizenship issue.
Redford’s team will take the good news.
In the month following the March 7 budget — the same day as Redford’s 48th birthday — polls put her popularity in free fall, with a mandatory party leadership review set for November.
Her budget announced $17 billion of debt for infrastructure over four years — manna for Wildrose recruiting efforts.
Critics call it a confusing visionary/austerity budget that borrows money to invest in savings and cuts budgets to post-secondary schools to revitalize them.
The NDP and Liberals brand Redford a promise breaker for not following through on more money for schools and hospitals. The Wildrose gleefully reads back to her in the house her earlier finger-wagging pronouncements on the evils of debt and deficit.
Neither criticism is fair, said Redford, sitting in her corner office of the legislature, in front of soaring windows that look east to Edmonton’s river valley and its distant oil refineries.
The budget, she said, sets a new direction while dealing with lower-than-expected oil prices. There is no more ham-handed spend, spend, spend or cut, cut, cut linked to the whims of petroleum. Instead it plows new middle ground in a nuanced economy where the population is growing but revenues are static.
Roads still need to be built and kids don’t deserve portable classrooms, but imagination and innovation can still take root through fiscal discipline or, if necessary, through budget reduction.
Don’t judge the results by this year or next year, but by the next election in spring 2016, said Redford.
“You don’t build 50 schools a month after you get elected, but you build 50 and refurbish 70 more by the time you get to the next election,” she said.
If not, Redford’s corner office could see another makeover.
It’s a room she has personalized with pictures of family and a lot of books, including treatises on government, Daniel Yergin’s oil epic “The Quest” and “The Roosevelt Women.” (“A clan of women far ahead of their time,” said Redford.)
Atop one bookcase by the door is a framed photo of Redford leaning in to touch the casket of former Tory premier Peter Lougheed in the legislature last September.
It’s shot from above, taken surreptitiously before the crowds and media were allowed in: the premier alone, save for the honour guard and the distant echoes of the marble rotunda.
“I went down to check on him,” said Redford, reaching up to grasp the photo by its frame.
“I don’t know (why). I had to.”
Lougheed is her lodestar: the Tory premier who started the dynasty in 1971 with the vision of an Alberta that can be prosperous yet frugal, meeting the needs of its citizens while standing up for its place in Confederation.
The picture is there, she said, so that she can see it when she’s holding meetings.
It’s also, there, she says, because it’s the last thing she sees before she heads out the door and back into the fray.