Just to start, I have to admit I have a hard time imagining Alison Redford in the kitchen, flour on her hands, baking. Apple pies, presumably.
But that’s how the former Alberta premier portrays herself in Globe and Mail Western Canada columnist Gary Mason’s lengthy account yesterday of how she now sees her fall from grace after a year of “self-analysis.”
Mason’s story — which sets out Alison Redford’s record as seen by Alison Redford — created a major buzz yesterday among Alberta’s chattering classes. Alas, for all that, it was not terribly illuminating.
It was headlined, provocatively, “I’m a Polarizing Figure!”
Well, most politicians are polarizing figures, especially the successful ones. Pierre Trudeau was a polarizing figure, and thanks to him we have our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to keep the likes of our current polarizing prime minister in check. Napoleon was a polarizing figure, and he was master of Europe for only 48 hours or so.
Redford hardly had enough supporters at the end of her political career to be described as polarizing. And no one can accuse her of having accomplished very much during her three years in power.
Leastways, most of her accomplishments, many of the Margaret Thatcher variety, are being dismantled one by one by the current government of Premier Jim Prentice, who was chosen by the Progressive Conservative party to be the Anti-Redford, to restore the party to its former glory and stave off the collapse and defeat that were the likely products of Redford’s short, unhappy spell at the helm.
The most recent Redford accomplishment to be so renounced was Bill 45, the Public Sector Services Continuation Act, clearly unconstitutional legislation passed by Redford’s government in December 2013 that established a national benchmark for anti-union bullying, and even banned free speech by any citizen who wanted to comment on labour relations in the public sector.
Just yesterday, Prentice promised a room full of public-sector union leaders he would repeal the act as quickly as possible, to their enormous relief.
Good for Mason, I guess, for persuading Redford to sit down in a Calgary golf course clubhouse for three hours to muse about her three years in Alberta’s top political job. Not so good for him to have tossed over the side the need to point out to readers the obvious factual flaws in her self-serving rendering of events.
For example, notwithstanding Redford’s claims to the contrary, there is a documentary record showing she and her staff were deeply involved in the Sky Palace Affair, the secret plan to build a private residence for the premier and her young daughter atop a government building in downtown Edmonton.
As for the rumours of personal impropriety Redford denies in passing in the column, who cares? These were nothing more than idle gossip among the political classes that never reached the general public and had nothing to do with why voters turned on her.
In Mason’s story, Redford’s take on almost every setback she experienced during her brief tenure is that it was someone else’s fault — and that on the issue of gender in particular, we all need to take a long look in the mirror to fully understand how we done her wrong.
She claims, with just enough justification to make it dangerous, that she was unsuccessful because of widespread misogyny, in the party and in Alberta society, and because the PC Party Old Boys never wanted her in the job.
There is nothing new about either of these arguments, which surfaced among her supporters before her political ship finally sank one year ago yesterday. Understandably, they have been part of the narrative ever since.
As has been said in this space before, the idea deserves serious and thoughtful consideration because sexism and misogyny are real phenomena, deeply entrenched in our culture, even among many of us who struggle against it.
But it cannot be denied that Redford was the only woman who ran for the Progressive Conservative leadership in the fall of 2011, and that her gender certainly did not stop her from winning.
Moreover, during that race, her superior strategy saw her come from behind and surpass several candidates who, whatever their other strengths and weaknesses, had more years of experience and more support in caucus than Redford — who had the support of only one MLA.
These particular facts, mind you, are interpreted by Redford to suggest the Old Boys’ Club in caucus never accepted her as premier because of her gender.
There is some truth to this assertion. And because the PC Party arrogantly threw the selection open to members of the public, if they bought a membership for a nominal fee, the Old Boys gave up some of their control — with, from their perspective, disastrous consequences.
Still, the Tory Old Boys were neither fools nor suicidal. Having seen Redford elected, it was not in their interests to upset her apple cart. So they mostly jumped aboard and fought hard for her victory in the 2012 general election campaign. Some, like former finance minister Doug Horner, were doggedly loyal long after it was good for his own career.
Moreover, in 2012, the contest to see who would lead the government of Alberta was a contest between two women — Redford, and Danielle Smith, then the leader of the Wildrose Party, which became the official Opposition after the votes were counted.
The two male party leaders, Brian Mason of the Alberta New Democrats and Raj Sherman of the Alberta Liberals, were also-rans, and at times mere afterthoughts.
Certainly, both Redford and Smith were taken seriously by commentators and voters alike.
So Redford didn’t win the general election because of her gender, and Smith didn’t lose it because of hers.
Later, with Redford in office and voters beginning to turn against her in increasing numbers, the preponderance of evidence suggests this had to do with the hard-right policies she implemented and her personal style of leadership.
When her approval ratings fell so low her party panicked, she was pushed out. But when the same PCs suffered a similar crisis of faith with her predecessor, Ed Stelmach, they pushed him out decisively too.
This was done quietly by comparison, but that was more a reflection of Stelmach’s and Redford’s personalities than their sex. Stelmach had had enough. Redford wanted to stay.
In the end, Stelmach’s inclination was to go without too much encouragement; Redford required a hard shove from her panicked fellow PCs — another small misleading point in Mason’s article, which implies that the decision to depart was Redford’s alone.
One can make a case that when gender played its most significant role, in 2011 during the leadership campaign, it worked mostly in her favour.
Many of us, myself included, jumped to the conclusion she must possess such positive characteristics as compassion, consensus building and even frugality because she was a woman — even though there was little evidence she’d ever demonstrated those qualities.
Many members of the public, moreover, continued to hold that positive impression of Redford long after the evidence was strongly pointing the other way.
Whether “not a nice lady” was appropriate terminology for MLA Len Webber to use to describe the premier when he quit the PC caucus to protest her style of leadership and where it was taking the party — an incident emphasized in Mason’s account — he was pointing to real aspects of her often-imperious character and entitled manner.
Not unlike Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Redford ruled autocratically, showing contempt both for the concerns of her caucus and the views of the groups that supported her in the 2011 leadership vote and the 2012 general election.
Above all, the policies she implemented, like the outrageous Bill 45, betrayed progressive voters who had elected her and saved her party at a perilous moment in its history.
Surely a politician with an 18-per-cent approval rating, as Redford had at the end of her career, had more than just men against her.
Redford is doggedly sticking to the misogyny defence, but the reality that disillusioned her former supporters in droves was that while she promised to be different from the old boys, she turned out to be pretty much the same.
How could anyone with the first-rate mind, as evidenced by her international and professional accomplishments before entering politics, and the huge potential of Redford go so spectacularly, so catastrophically wrong?
This is a mystery for the ages that we won’t get much help solving from Mr. Mason’s story.
One thing shines through regardless, though. It was Redford’s sense of entitlement, her lousy policies, her expensive and entitled style, and her betrayal of her political allies on both the right and left that did her in.
For that, she has no one to blame but herself.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.