A nasty history lesson for Alberta’s PC leader Alison Redford

What the embattled premier might have learned from Ralph Klein
A nasty history lesson
Jeff McIntosh/CP

Political campaigns aren’t what they used to be in Alberta. In 2012, the press is raising hell because the Wildrose party, which has a stranglehold on the polls halfway through the election race, has occasionally been rebutting individual newspaper columnists by means of terse little press releases. Not cricket, say the media old-timers. Yet most of these people are old enough to remember the unpredictable premier Ralph Klein and his consigliere Rod Love, whose interactions with critics were sometimes more like headbuttals than rebuttals.

Take one famous scene that preceded the 1993 provincial election, when the Conservative government of Alberta was in the deepest doo-doo it has known until now. An upstart lobby group, the Association of Alberta Taxpayers (AAT), was successfully spreading word of the crazy defined-benefit pensions MLAs had voted themselves—plans which, after repeated increases, often gave members twice the value of what they had kicked in. With dozens of caucus members jumping ship, Klein had stood behind the pensions, saying it would be “immoral” to change them. But the voters were in a lynching mood, and Klein’s campaign bagmen were freaking out.

With the election about four weeks away, the AAT held an impromptu afternoon press conference under the dome in Edmonton. The group had just unveiled a 30,000-word petition calling for reform of the odious pension plan. Unexpectedly, Klein tottered into view on his way back from lunch. Seeing the AAT’s man, the premier charged like a buffalo and, with the legislature bureau looking on in horror, began to berate the AAT at top volume over its direct-marketing tactics. The group was “robbing” feeble seniors, bellowed a crimson-faced Klein. (This was a rare failure of Kleinian instinct; AAT contributors mostly just loved its newsletter full of baroque tales of government waste.)

The AAT’s spokesman kept his cool and stayed polite as Klein’s off-topic tirade gradually trailed off. That scene might have destroyed some governments, but it was serendipitous for the PCs; a humiliated Klein was left with no choice but to turn viciously against his own clueless caucus and crack down on the pensions. The AAT, for a while, acquired a near-veto over Alberta legislation, gaining a voice in the spending cuts that were to follow Klein’s re-election. The group was the ancestor of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and Jason Kenney, the irksome 24-year-old whose appearance had so infuriated the premier, was launched on his own political trajectory.

It’s a funny story—one with a neglected warning. Today’s Alberta PCs went into the 2012 campaign bearing their own explosive package planted by the CTF. On Mar. 9 the organization gave one of its “Teddy” awards to the 21 members of the Alberta assembly’s standing committee on privileges and elections. Private members sitting on the committee had been receiving allowances of $1,000 a month for being available for duty, even though the committee has not met since Nov. 17, 2008. And members had adjourned knowing they wouldn’t be back soon: chairman Ray Prins has specifically told them the next meeting “could be 20 years from now.”

MLAs from all parties took “no-meet committee” cash, but when Wildrose and Liberal members announced plans to return their allowances, PC Premier Alison Redford called it a “stunt” and accused them of “grandstanding.” The immediate feedback in Prins’s riding of Lacombe-Ponoka was so ferocious that he announced his retirement from politics on March 21, mere days after giving expansive, playful interviews about his plans to run again. When the election became official on April 5 and other PC candidates started door-knocking, they quickly found that the anger wasn’t local.

Within a few days Redford had to admit she should have “acted faster and gone further.” By that time, she could offer no more than a promise of action. MLAs who do not return all the post-2008 cash, she says, will “not be welcome” in her caucus. But it’s not the best time for her to ask the Alberta public for a leap of faith, considering how she fudged promises made during her leadership campaign—her “fixed election date” law, for example, ended up providing only for an “election window” covering most of the spring.

Meanwhile, she didn’t consult her caucus on the payback, or give them much time to absorb it. Virtually all PC MLAs had supported other leadership candidates, and as the Redford campaign stumbles, nasty anonymous quotes are beginning to blossom in the newspapers. The Alberta Conservative machine has a proven ability to rally from behind, but its people have to want to win with the leader they’ve got. Shockingly low PC morale makes the miracle look less likely every day.