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Redford Government can't seem to stop fumbling expenses frenzy

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Sheila Weatherill

The clueless ineptitude of the Redford Government dealing with Alberta's continuing health system expense account brouhaha is matched only by the belligerence of the Opposition in portraying the situation as an outrage and a scandal.

Since mainstream media now routinely refer to the matter that way -- "Redford, opposition trade barbs over Alberta Health Services expense scandal," is how the Edmonton Journal headlined the story yesterday -- it's fair to say the opposition strategy is working.

Whether it's in answers to questions in the Legislature, management of issues by Premier Alison Redford's newly hired phalanx of former Ontario spin doctors, the juvenile quality of a stream of mean-spirited Tweets from the deputy premier's BlackBerry, or just the Progressive Conservatives' apparent inability to predict when the next embarrassing story is about to break, her government seems to be operating without a clue in a cartload!

Rudimentary issues-management skills should have allowed Redford to step out of the way with aplomb when the two latest loads of stuff hit the proverbial fan. Instead, she got splattered!

The first one was this week’s revelation that in 2008 a senior Capital Health Region executive had a trip to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for cancer tests, which by the sound of it weren't needed, approved by her boss as a legitimate expense to be paid by the public.

"I was instructed to go for a further consultation at the Mayo Clinic by my boss to ensure that I was clear of the condition. As it was not my decision, it was funded by my employer," former CHR vice-president Michele Lahey told a local newspaper after she was tracked down at the private hospital where she now works in the United Kingdom.

"I do not believe I have done anything wrong," she added. So no, she wouldn't be repaying the money -- and, as Health Minister Fred Horne admitted, the government concluded it didn't have a leg to stand on when it pondered trying to collect the $7,800 from her.

Redford wasn't even thought of as a potential premier at the time this happened, let alone the occupant of the office. Horne wasn't the minister either. And, for heaven's sake, Alberta Health Services hadn't even been created – and when it was it was supposedly in part to fix just such problems.

Yet Redford and her advisors let that ball just sail by. Even the fact it originated with a Freedom of Information filing apparently failed to alert the government the story was about to break.

Still, since it also looked as much like a case of line jumping as one of expense account shenanigans, the government could plausibly have pleaded it was looking into that through the Health Care Preferential Treatment Inquiry led by retired judge John Vertes.

Alas for them, they'd already closed that affair down -- apparently over the wishes of Judge Vertes -- managing to make the whole thing look like a cover-up on top of everything else.

You have to admit, it takes real talent to bungle things this badly! And we're still less than halfway through the story!

The second punch in the one-two combination came in the form of the next revelation, that another former senior health executive -- this one hired for Alberta Health Services by former CEO Stephen Duckett, the fellow fired in November 2011 for misusing an oatmeal-raisin cookie -- had been allowed to expense $1,200 in medical tests needed to get permission to move to Canada.

Surely the government could have blown that one off with the excuse it's standard practice to do such things when recruiting top executives from abroad?

But, no, perhaps from bad luck, perhaps by bad management, they seem to have managed to drop that ball too. Maybe they forgot because, barely three years after she was hired as strategy and performance VP, Alison Tonge had also packed up and moved back to the U.K.

Now it’s been revealed by the Calgary Herald AHS paid Tonge at least $426,576 to go away!

This too happened before Redford's watch began, but no matter. You'd think the government would have figured out by now the FOI requests just aren't going to stop until journalists have pumped that well dry, so they might as well release everything and make a virtue of necessity. Don't count on it, though, because strategic thinking doesn't seem to be part of the Redford Government's repertoire.

Yesterday afternoon, former Capital Health CEO Sheila Weatherill threw up her hands at this and said she shouldn't have authorized Lahey's trip to Minnesota, so she'd personally pay back $7,800 – the cost plus inflation. Maybe she's just nostalgic for the days the local media used to treat her with adulation.

A gleeful Horne -- who may or may not have come up with the idea himself -- told the media he had Weatherill's cheque in hand.

Not that this is likely to end the feeding frenzy any time soon. Somebody's bound to do so anyway, so it might as well be me that points out this still leaves Weatherill with $1,492,200 of her controversial 2008 buyout -- and that's not counting her $1.7-million executive retirement plan and her pension!

Since all three opposition parties have got their teeth into a good thing with this stuff, we can't reasonably expect any of them to stop as long as the headlines keep coming.

And as we get closer to the next election in 2015, it's safe to predict the Opposition will up the ante.

In particular, the Official Opposition, the far-right Wildrose Party under former Fraser Institute intern Danielle Smith, which has no more use for public health care than most of Redford's caucus and cabinet, is joined at the hip with Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative Party. As is well known, Harper's Robocall Party has negative campaigning implanted deep in its political DNA.

If in the run-up to the next election in 2016 the Wildrosers don't stoop to the kind of advertising we just saw welcome Justin Trudeau to his new role as federal Liberal leader, it will be an astonishing development.

So if Redford and her insiders can't up their game, we are led inevitably to two conclusions:

First, the next three years will see politics in Alberta descend to a whole new low of American-style viciousness -- the fear of which made former Premier Ed Stelmach throw up his hands and quit in 2011.

Second, if the premier can't get her act together, the possibility of a Wildrose government -- which seemed laughably unlikely a year ago as Redford's PCs celebrated their comfortable election victory -- every day seems more like a probability.

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

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