Alison Redford, 2011

Back in the mists of time, or rather, Time, there used to be a regular December feature called “Man of the Year.”

That was amended to “Person of the Year” in the 28th year of Progressive Conservative rule here in Alberta, and no doubt many in that party are still upset by the change, being symptomatic, as it were, of that other kind of PC they so love to disparage.

Other news organizations that want to do the same thing but not admit that it was someone else’s idea often use the term “Newsmaker of the Year.”

Call it what you will, I was thinking in preparation for the arrival of 2015 that Alberta’s news-making person of the year in 2014 is undoubtedly a woman. The only question is, which one?

That is to say, was the 2014 newsmaker of the year in Alberta former premier Alison Redford, or former opposition leader Danielle Smith?

I’m guessing the prevailing view in mainstream media will be the title belongs to Smith, mainly because their attention spans are short and Google, pretty much the only remaining research tool of post-journalistic journalists, tends to push the most recent news stories to the top of the list.

But a much stronger case can be made that Redford deserves the title. Hers is not a happy story, or even a particularly enlightening one, but it is far more significant.

As for Smith, let’s deal with her quickly. She sounded good, but turned out to be just another glib careerist with a second-rate mind.

If anyone had been paying attention to her history, this should have been obvious. Professor Tom Flanagan — who was once her teacher at the University of Calgary and whom she later tossed over the side without a moment’s thought when he became an embarrassment — is said to have thought she was a brilliant student. But other than a cheerful insincerity combined with determined attachment to the discredited nostrums of neoliberalism, did she really accomplish all that much? Where had she been and what had she done before she entered politics? The answers are Alberta, and writing press releases for various branches of the Canadian outrage industry, mainly.

The remarkable accomplishment of building up the Wildrose Party overnight — and dismantling it in even less time — was mostly done by others. Really, Smith’s claim to personhood of the year is based on the sheer breathtaking egregiousness of her self-serving hypocrisy a few days ago.

Well, it was a great news story, but like most news stories it was only a flash in the pan.

The rise and fall of Redford — her personal tragedy and the tragic lost potential of her short spell as premier — is another matter entirely.

How anyone with the first-rate mind, as evidenced by her international and professional accomplishments before entering politics, and the huge potential of Redford could go so spectacularly, so catastrophically wrong is a mystery for everyone to contemplate. My sense is that many of those who knew her are as astounded as those of us who did not.

Certainly she lacked support in key corners of her own party. It was not just the “Old Boys” who didn’t like her, and wanted her to fail, although that was manifestly the case, but also many of the ideologues and financial bagmen who lurk in the shadows of conservative politics. Subverting the progressive and democratic instincts of Ed Stelmach, which were at least talked about by Redford when it appeared they were the key to victory, was why they bankrolled the Wildrose Party in the first place.

So, even if she had done everything right, things might well have ended in tears for Redford and her most ardent supporters.

Nevertheless, she offered an appealing and persuasive new face to Albertans at the start of her run toward power in 2011 and 2012. She picked her initial campaign team well, and she placed herself for campaign purposes in the sweet spot of the political-economic psyche of most Albertans — the moderately conservative centre, with a strong dose of progressivism on a variety of issues.

Were those Redford’s own views, or the positioning of Stephen Carter, the sharp political advisor she hired to run her campaign and be her first chief of staff? The prevailing view nowadays, I guess, is that Redford was a tabula rasa upon which Carter wrote, and the whole project went to hell in a hand basket when he left her staff.

I am not so sure. I suspect her progressive beliefs were sincere enough, but that they fell prey to a number of factors later in her rule — including bad advice from the out-of-province advisors with whom she replaced Carter, pressure and conniving from the economic right within PC party circles as well as from the Wildrose opposition, and the quite apparent flaws in her own character.

Redford surely cannot be excused from her own role in her downfall. We know many of her advisors complained she wouldn’t listen to them. We will probably never know what she was advised to do. But listen or not, whatever she was told, what on earth could have persuaded a brilliant woman to countenance unethical and transparent schemes like the fakes-on-a-plane scam, to have thought it was appropriate to spend $45,000 in public funds for herself and one aide to travel to South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s funeral, or to have allowed plans to proceed to secretly build a $2-million private residence for her and her daughter atop a government building?

It simply beggars the imagination! I doubt she came up with all this herself, but there is no doubt that the fundamental flaw in her character was that she simply never got it that it wasn’t just all about Alison.

The real tragedy of Redford, assuming her initial progressive beliefs reflected something more than cynical opportunism, is that she could have helped to build a better society in Alberta and ease this province away from the real catastrophe it has been driving toward since Ralph Klein’s premiership. That is, an undemocratic petro-state, the beneficiaries of which will simply walk away with their bags of money when the party is over.

Obviously, we will get no relief from that fate from either Premier Jim Prentice or Smith, whatever her role in the Prentice Government turns out to be.

Redford, I am certain, could have made a difference — and may have wanted to make a difference — if only she could somehow have conquered her own personal demons.

Instead, she chose — or was pushed, or both — to betray her own promises and turn on her most enthusiastic supporters, and to behave in ways that were both bound to be discovered and to destroy any chance of success she may have had.

Alison Redford’s betrayal of herself, her potential and her supporters was a far bigger and more worthy story than the pedestrian self-interest displayed by her rival for the title of person of the year.

How will we build a better Alberta now that Redford has burned our bridges, as well as hers? Danielle Smith, by contrast, is exposed as a garden-variety hypocrite. That is all.

Maybe in the end, both of them were just too persuasive for the flawed people they turned out to be, and therefore we were all bound for disappointment. But Redford represents a genuine tragedy that impacts many more Albertans than just her and her loved ones, and for that it is a history worth thinking about, researching and writing about.

Sic transit gloria mundi. Alberta, I give you Alison Redford, Person of the Year!

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

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...