It may be 2015 now, but a 2014 problem continues to haunt the government of Premier Jim Prentice. I’m not talking about the Mudville Nine Wildrose defectors. Instead, you can at least partly blame Dave Hancock for the Alberta government’s likely next big crisis.
At any rate, it was Hancock, when he was premier pro tempore after Alison Redford was tossed overboard by her caucus and before Jim Prentice triumphantly paraded through the streets of the capital to replace her, who either had or approved the bright idea of calling the cops in to investigate some of the things Redford and her advisors had gotten up to.
In his report last summer, which was heavily covered by news media at the time, Auditor General Merwan Saher blamed an “aura of power” around Redford for making spineless politicians and government officials fearful to challenge what was being done in her name. More seriously, Saher concluded that the former premier’s office staff used public aircraft inappropriately – a specific accusation that according to the CBC the RCMP had already been looking into.
Even before the report was out, though, insiders in Hancock’s government seemed to have hit on the idea of asking the RCMP to investigate the talk of scandal as a way to show they were doing something about that particular political crise du jour and as justification for refusing to answer reporters’ questions about it.
Former Wildrose strategist Tom Flanagan, who had fallen into temporary disrepute in conservative circles for comments he had made about child pornography at a public meeting, rightly assailed the rush to call the cops before the AG’s evidence had been released as a sign Alberta was turning into a banana republic that had little regard for due process. “I’ve seen this from the inside as well as from the outside,” Flanagan said darkly at the time.
For her part, Redford issued a statement on July 29, categorically denying any part in the Fakes on a Plane shenanigans, in which fake names are said to have been added to flight manifests to keep rank-and-file government employees from travelling on government aircraft being used by the premier and her aides.
“Despite the allegations raised today, as far as I am concerned there was never any directive preventing others from flying on government aircraft when I was a passenger,” Redford stated. “In fact, on most occasions that I can recall, when I was on government flights, I travelled with other elected officials, public servants and staff.”
As a distraction tactic, dialing political 9-1-1 worked OK in the short term. Hancock, Justice Minister Jonathan Denis and other officials were able to claim something was being done to solve the political problem they faced, and they were thereafter saved the embarrassment of having to struggle with the most difficult questions.
However, as it turned out, this only put off the problem for the government until later.
The thing about the RCMP — and, who knows, this may have come as a revelation to Prentice and his inner circle — is that their criminal investigations are quite independent of a provincial government.
Once you’ve called the Mounties in, you can’t call them off just because it’s become politically expedient for your government. So the investigation by the RCMP’s Serious and Organized Crime Branch has continued, whether the government likes it or not — and it almost certainly doesn’t like it one bit.
Everyone in political circles in Alberta has heard the rumours that the investigation in bearing fruit and something is likely to happen soon. If charges against some participants result – and there’s no point asking the Mounties, because they’ll tell us what they’re going to do in their own sweet time – the stuff will hit the fan all over again.
And even though he’s selling the planes, this time it will be very difficult for Prentice to argue this isn’t his problem because other than the premier and his new friends from the Wildrose Party, Alberta’s brave new management looks pretty much the same as the lily-livered old management that lacked the spine and principles to stand up to Redford’s supposed aura of power.
Denis, for example, Hancock’s justice minister and main sidekick on the file, is now Prentice’s justice minister and likely to be his main sidekick on the file. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose?
Indeed, it will look very much as if nothing at all has changed — although that may not make much difference with the opposition co-opted, fragmented and understaffed.
It’s safe to assume that Prentice wishes this problem would just go away. But it’s hard to see how he can make that happen with the Mounties in charge of the investigation, and presumably determined to get their man or woman.
This is just one more reason for Prentice to call an early election in 2015.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.