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Payment of $45,000 travel bill by Alberta Premier raises as many questions as it answers

Fresh from her public relations triumph in Edmonton's Churchill LRT station Tuesday, Alberta Premier Alison Redford announced yesterday she has personally paid back the $45,000 cost of her trip to South Africa in December, and that of the young aide who went along with her.

"My hope is that we can now get back to the work Albertans asked us to do," the premier told a hastily organized afternoon news conference -- whatever that work is, since it's not at all clear her government is following anything remotely like the agenda the people who elected her in 2012 expected.

In other words, Shut up and leave me alone!

This payment is said to have smothered a caucus rebellion that could have reduced Redford's Progressive Conservative government to a minority -- although I am highly skeptical many of Alberta's timorous and highly entitled Tory MLAs would have had the courage to quit and sit as independents.

Regardless, if Redford thinks this is going to allow her to put the travel-costs controversy that's been dogging her since early February behind her, she needs to think again.

Indeed, right off the hop, the latest chapter in this excruciating saga raises additional potentially embarrassing questions about the South Africa trip:

If the trip to Nelson Mandela's funeral was personal business, as yesterday's announcement suggests, why was it billed to the public in the first place? Why did it take so long to for the premier to pay it back?

And if it was personal business, why did the premier take a political aide with her, and why is she paying his fare now?

It is also reasonable for Albertans to wonder how Redford paid for the trip -- $45,000, notwithstanding any Alberta premier's generous salary, being a substantial chunk of change.

Alberta Progressive Conservatives have long paid their leaders, who since 1971 have always been the premier, a generous allowance. But how generous? That is a closely held party secret.

Even though the allowance starts as party money, it comes from tax deductible donations and is part of the compensation of a public figure -- which, if this government is really as serious about transparency as it claims, ought to be part of the public record.

Without that information, Albertans are entitled to wonder if, in effect, the party paid off this embarrassing debt for the premier to make a political problem disappear.

Moreover, since the cost of the South Africa trip was first revealed, the controversy about the premier's travel has expanded to involve the use of the government's small fleet of propeller-driven aircraft for personal and party-related trips.

With reporters and political foes scrutinizing the government air fleet's logs, this aspect of the story also shows no signs of abating.

For example, there was the matter of Redford taking her daughter and a friend to Vancouver on government plane -- either for a family funeral or a meeting with the Consul General of India -- a $3,100 fare the premier also paid back.

Yesterday as well, the Wildrose Opposition published a press release saying it has filed a point of privilege with Speaker Gene Zwozdesky accusing Health Minister Fred Horne of lying to the Legislature about the use of a government aircraft to attend a PC fundraiser in Grande Prairie in 2012.

"Horne defended the flight in the Legislature, saying it was legitimate because 'we made an announcement' on the Grande Prairie Hospital that day," the Wildrose news release stated. "He also called it 'important government business.' However, Wildrose has determined there was no Government of Alberta announcement that day in Grande Prairie."

Since there was "no legitimate reason for Redford or her ministers to have used the government plane that day," Opposition Leader Danielle Smith concluded, "Horne telling the Legislature there was an announcement was false."

Finally, there is the question of whether using government aircraft for personal errands is merely unseemly, or whether it may actually be illegal.

Isn't disgraced Senator Pamela Wallin being investigated by the police for much the same thing?

Really, if the RCMP found it appropriate to investigate Sen. Wallin for claiming personal travel on commercial airlines as Senate business, doesn't the use of public aircraft for personal and party business, which appears to have been a routine occurrence here in Alberta, amount to the same thing?

Voters are also within their rights then to ask if the RCMP applies the same standards to members of the Alberta Legislature as it does to members of the Canadian Senate.

So, no, the payment of nearly $50,000 by Premier Redford for air fares that ought never have been billed to the public is not going to make this issue go away, whether or not her caucus has now decided to behave itself.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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