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Air Redford's airborne ghost riders will be the death of Alberta's Tories

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Alison Redford

Those ghost riders on Alison Redford's government flights aren't going to go away. They will be the death of the party she led to government in 2012.

As Tattoo used to cry from the bell tower in the creepy Fantasy Island TV series: "De plane! De plane!"

Yesterday the CBC revealed that when she was premier, Redford's office staff made a practice of ensuring she not only got to ride the government's planes hither and yon, but that she rode them in regal privacy.

They did this by booking seats seats for fake passengers who kept low-level civil servants and déclassé backbench MLAs off the government flights she planned to take. The ghost riders would cancel their reservations at the last moment.

The revelation by CBC Edmonton's investigative reporters was based on a report by Alberta Auditor General Merwan Saher, which wasn't supposed to be made public for at least a couple of more weeks.

Public knowledge of this shabby little scheme is just another blow in what's getting to be a very long list of outrages, entitlements, embarrassments and deceptions tied to Redford and her personal staff. So when the history of the fall of the mighty Alberta Tory dynasty established in 1971 by Peter Lougheed is written, Redford's name and political ineptitude is bound to figure prominently in the tale.

By yesterday afternoon, Redford had been disavowed by all three Tory party leadership candidates. Opposition calls for an RCMP investigation of her conduct were apparently being taken seriously by the ambitious trio -- although they surely must know the dangers in that course of action, having the examples of the Gomery Commission and PMO-Senate Scandal investigation before them. Indeed, how is it possible at least some members of the Redford cabinet didn't know about the practices described in yesterday's CBC report?

Nowadays, whenever you think the Progressive Conservative Party might be able to lurch back to its feet, it's run over by another steamroller.

Only on Monday, the Opposition revealed the Tories' vaunted three-year pay freeze for senior government executives -- every one of them part of the Tory human infrastructure that has ruled Alberta since 1971 -- was secretly ditched by Premier pro tempore Dave Hancock's cabinet last week. While that was still in the headlines yesterday morning, the latest Air Redford flight scandal broke.

As public outrage over Redford's lavish foreign travel expenses reached fever pitch last March, she agreed under pressure to let the Auditor General take a look at her travel practices.

If the report was supposed to remain a secret until the Tory brain trust had a chance to get their talking points in order, things didn't work out that way. The CBC got a copy from someone and published the revealing details of how the scam kept unwanted passengers off the government’s planes when the premier was aboard.

They quoted Saher's report thusly: "We were told by [the premier's] office staff and multiple staff from the Department of Treasury Board and Finance that for certain flights the remaining seats available on the plane were blocked to restrict access to Premier Redford on the aircraft."

The report is not crystal clear, but it sounds as if the premier's staff used the names of actual employees to block the seats. It would be very interesting to know if those people knew they were supposed to be flying on certain days, and, if they did, why no one said anything about it.

If the ghost riders used the names of real people from the Finance and Treasury Board departments, it would also be interesting to know what the relevant minister has to say about what he knew. Alas, Doug Horner has not been available to comment.

The ghost passengers were booked a couple of weeks in advance, the CBC reported. Their travel plans were cancelled at the last moment by the premier's staff. With that, apparently Ms. Redford and her daughter, and her daughter's friends, and her daughter's nanny -- well, she and her political staff, anyway -- got to fly in blessed privacy, with no gossipy low-level civil servants or annoying backbenchers nearby.

According to the AG's report and subsequent news stories, both the former premier and her chief of staff deny knowing anything about it. That may well be, although at this point it hardly matters.

If she knew nothing, it's astonishing Redford never wondered why her flights were often so quiet. If her chief of staff was ignorant of the practice, which we must assume to be the case, he obviously wasn't paying enough attention. It seems highly unlikely that a responsible officer of the Legislature would have reported the practice if he wasn't certain it actually went on.

The CBC story outlines other problems with Redford's use of the government air fleet: using government airplanes when commercial flights would have done nicely, insufficient documentation of why the planes were used, more than 50 flights with her daughter riding free, and reasons given for aircraft use that didn't hold up under examination.

But the grubby little deception described by the CBC to allow the premier and her entourage to fly in privacy is what will resonate with a disgusted public.

Of the dozens of people who must have known, a group that surely included several in cabinet as well as senior officials, no one spoke up. What does this tell us?

The malaise in the Redford Government ran much deeper than just an one entitled premier and her personal staff.

And, while Redford's caucus may have toppled her in the sky-palace coup in March and run her personal staff out of town on a rail, as the "leading by example" episode illustrates, little else seems to have changed here on Fantasy Island.

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

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