Alberta Tory leadership contender Alison Redford

Two questions immediately spring to mind about Alison Redford, the latest candidate to declare in the race to replace Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach:

1)    Can a province that loved the elemental Ralph Klein also fall for a brainy academic human rights lawyer?

2)    What does this person, who’s only been an MLA since 2008, really stand for?

Neither question, as it turns out, is all that easy to answer.

Redford announced yesterday that the rumours were true and she would follow in the footsteps of former finance minister Ted Morton, former deputy premier Doug Horner and rural MLA Doug Griffiths and throw her metaphorical hat into the Tory leadership ring vacated by Premier Stelmach back on Jan. 25.

Notwithstanding the fact she is a one-term MLA for Calgary-Elbow, on paper Redford brings unmatched credentials to the race. She’s a lawyer, indeed, a Queen’s Counsel. Her official Legislative biography says she once worked for the office of the prime minister. (Didn’t it used to say she worked for former prime minister Joe Clark?)

She’s worked for the European Union, for the government of Australia, for the Commonwealth, for human rights in Africa, for the United Nations, as elections administrator for the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and, for all you lefties, as a legal reform advisor to the People’s Republic of Vietnam. She’s worked in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Namibia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and the Philippines. There’s probably more.

Oh, and since she’s just 45, we’re pretty obviously talking about a major Type-A overachiever here, who topped all that stuff off with getting elected as an MLA for one of Calgary’s wealthiest neighbourhoods in 2008 and being appointed Justice Minister and Attorney General by an obviously impressed Ed Stelmach.

But you can just hear some unshaven guy in the bar in Carbon or some other not-so-swell location muttering, “Yeah, but would you want to have a beer with her … and what’s she done for Alberta?” Or, more to the point, and what such musings are really about, “Do you think she’d like to have a beer with me?

Maybe not. Who knows? Not this blogger. Not anyone he knows, even among the chattiest of the chattering classes. Indeed, for all anybody around here knows, Alison Redford could be more fun in a bar that a barrel of Ted Morton’s political science courses. But one can’t shake the feeling, just based on her public persona, that she’s a little more reserved than that.

If she is, and she wins the leadership race, she’s going to have to face off for the right-wing vote against Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith, who may not have a QC or a standing invitation to drop in on the Secretary-General of the UN, but who does have Ralph-Klein-like charm in spades.

Who would win in a race between these two where the people who get to choose the winner adored Ralph Klein, a Grade 9 dropout, and would forgive him anything — even getting blasted and throwing his pocket change at the bewildered occupants of a men’s shelter? (In fairness, that’s something neither Redford nor Smith is likely to do.)

Politics has not all been roses, either, for Redford. OK, she won as the Conservative candidate once she was anointed in Calgary-Elbow, but arguably a lot of candidates could have. Back in 2004 when she challenged Calgary West MP Rob Anders for the federal Conservative nomination, the man who is surely Canada’s most egregiously bad elected official mopped the floor with her.

Mr. Anders, a former professional heckler for the Republican Party, may have been the guy who called Nelson Mandela a terrorist, but Conservative nominators in at least one very basic Calgary riding clearly preferred him to a smarty-pants lawyer who spent 16 years working for human rights. So what makes you think a broader sampling of Albertans wouldn’t prefer Danielle Smith?

As for Question 2, Redford’s academic and public service record up to joining Stelmach’s team is clearly enough to get her branded a “Red Tory” by almost every journalist in the province. Leastways, those few who still doubted that should be persuaded now that she’s Tweeted her decision to run, instead of issuing the traditional press release.

But how red is she really?

All of a sudden, Alberta Tories who were scrambling over one another a year ago to prove their hyper-conservative chops are scrambling to redefine themselves as pretty liberal — presumably the better to put a little space between themselves and Ted Morton, who was raised in a part of Wyoming where Red means Republican.

But is Redford the real thing? Well, there’s not much of a legislative record to judge, seeing as she’s only been in the House since March 2008.

One good sign: If she didn’t quite have the courage of her convictions, at least she had the good sense to skip the vote on Bill 44, the ridiculous 2009 Tory law that gave parents the right to keep their children out of classes where the lessons touched on sex, religion or dinosaurs. That’s something neither Morton nor Griffiths can say, although Horner seems to have also had his wits about him that day, failing to turn up at Legislature as well.

Beyond that, Redford’s voting record is pretty much like any other Tory in this monolithic Legislature. Plus, she’s got a reputation for being as partisan as the next debater in the House. All of which, when you get right down to it, pretty much spells c-o-n-s-e-r-v-a-t-i-v-e — though maybe not conservative enough to dissuade a few strategic voters from the centre and the left to come on over.

The policy platform outlined on her website is pretty generic stuff, designed not to offend anyone too much. So it’s hard to say what she’d do in office.

Which brings us back to the question Alberta’s large population of small-c conservative, politically inactive voters might well ask themselves if they had to make the choice between Redford and Smith: “Why not vote for the real thing?”

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

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...