Alberta's old boys’ club elects a new premier

Alison Redford sings from the Tory hymnal, but her Calgary business connections confirm her liberalism

The old boys' club's new premier

Chris Schwarz

Alison Redford, who has captured the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives and will soon be sworn in as the province’s 14th premier, was the preferred candidate of those who wanted to blow up the “old boys’ network.” One of the ways she sought to establish her probity/transparency bona fides was to release a complete list of her major donors. This proved deft: the list won her brownie points, but few noticed that it is practically an index of highly connected, politically conscious Alberta money men.

Redford got five-figure donations from Maclab Enterprises, the property-rental giant co-founded by philanthropist Sandy Mactaggart; Ed McNally’s Big Rock Brewery, longtime provider of social lubricant for conservative events; Irv Kipnes, who spun Tory booze-retail privatization into gold as CEO of the Liquor Stores Income Fund. Name an elite Calgary clan and you’re almost certain to find its handle in Team Redford’s accounts: McCaig, Southern, Haskayne, Markin, Hotchkiss—builders whose names are physically all over the city, chiselled into the stones of schools and clinics.

These forces backed the “outsider” whose victory in the Oct. 1 PC leadership showdown sent ripples of surprise across the country. The original heir apparent had been Gary Mar, a Klein-era health and education minister who left the province to become its official agent in Washington in 2007. Mar, a Chinese-Canadian who could count on a strong ethnic ground game, started strong but watched inherent weaknesses transmute into fatal flaws.

He could not disperse the stench of 2004’s Kelley Charlebois scandal, in which his longtime executive assistant got $389,000 in consultancy contracts from Mar’s health ministry for producing work nobody could identify. Mar also had trouble showing exactly what he had accomplished for Alberta interests in D.C. while drawing his $264,000 envoy’s salary—along with an MLA severance package worth $478,000, which he promised to “defer” and then quietly accepted in 2008. Mar’s residency, for better or worse, coincided with a period in which the prestige of Alberta’s oil patch in Washington appeared to evaporate.

Redford’s cause gathered strength as Mar struggled, making controversial comments in favour of private health care and eventually stumbling into a quarrel with rock star Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi over municipal taxation. Redford began the long PC campaign as the province’s all-but-unknown justice minister, elected to the legislature in 2008 after failing to wrest the federal Conservative nomination in Calgary-West away from MP Rob Anders. Much of her adult life has been spent travelling as a Canadian and UN human rights representative, helping arrange transitions to democracy in places like post-apartheid South Africa and post-Taliban Afghanistan.

But Redford downplayed this experience, highlighting family roots in Redwater and Turner Valley instead of trying to overawe Albertans with her international credentials. As a speaker in the legislature, she had possessed a droning style that could have been used to euthanize small animals; almost overnight, once the race was on, she gained confidence and competence. Her platform exploded with ambitious ideas, so much so that smaller-government voters already regard her with extreme suspicion. But she kept the oil patch onside, promoting Ezra Levant’s “ethical oil” meme (and winning his endorsement).

The Alberta PCs hold leadership races under an open system that lets anyone vote for the five-buck price of a party membership. After the first phase of voting ended Sept. 17, with three of the six candidates dropped from the ballot, Mar was ahead of the second-place Redford by 41 per cent to her 19 per cent (out of a feeble turnout of 59,359 votes). No one, however, forgot that Ralph Klein had gone on to win after finishing second in 1992, and Ed Stelmach had rallied from a distant third in 2006. Redford went on to trounce Mar and third-place Doug Horner in a televised debate just one day after the death of her mother Helen. The buzz was enough for her to beat Mar, 37,101 to 35,491, in a nail-biting final showdown of transferable ballots that ran past 1 a.m. on Oct. 2.

Redford’s connections with Calgary business are a confirmation of her liberalism, not a contradiction of it. Despite its Wild West reputation, Alberta follows the general rule that strong right-wing ideas are found amongst holders of seven- and eight-figure fortunes; the really big ones, the nines, tend toward the do-good internationalism that Redford embodies. She is by background a Red Tory, but her platform hit conservative notes, like ending social promotion in schools and changing human-rights law to protect free speech.

She knows the Alberta PC hymnal, and can croon “Maintain the Alberta Advantage” and “Government Must Not Pick Winners” right along with the choir. Her style of Alberta government, should she preserve it beyond next spring’s election, promises to be audacious and business friendly—or, if you’re a pessimist, dangerously experimental and rapacious.

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