Alison Redford, as Alberta's new premier, on the campaign trail in 2012. Image credit: David J. Climenhaga

Seven years ago this week, Alison Redford resigned as premier of Alberta.

Her rise and fall were swift. Unexpectedly chosen to replace the departing Progressive Conservative premier, Ed Stelmach, in the wee hours of October 2, 2011, she was sworn in six days later. She survived an election the PCs had been thought likely to lose to the far-right Wildrose Party on April 23, 2012.

But her time as premier did not go smoothly and did not last long.

How anyone with Redford’s huge potential and first-rate mind, as evidenced by her international and professional accomplishments before entering politics, could go so spectacularly, so catastrophically wrong remains one of the mysteries of Alberta history.

By the end of 2014, most of those who knew her were as astounded by what had happened as those of us who did not.

Certainly Redford lacked support in key corners of her own PC party. And it was not just the party “old boys” who didn’t like her and wanted her to fail, although that was manifestly the case. Many of the ideologues and financial bagmen who lurk in the shadows of conservative politics did what they could to ensure her failure too.

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 her victory, was why those operators bankrolled the Wildrose Party in the first place.

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

Unquestionably, though, in 2011 and 2012 she offered an appealing and persuasive new face to Albertans.

She picked her initial campaign team well, and placed herself in the sweet spot of the political-economic psyche of most Albertans — the moderately conservative centre, with a strong dose of progressivism on social issues.

Were those Redford’s own views, or the clever positioning of Stephen Carter, the sharp political adviser she hired to run her campaign and be her first chief of staff?

Après le déluge in 2014, the prevailing view was that Redford was a tabula rasa upon which Carter had written, and the whole project went to hell in a hand basket when he left her staff.

I was not so sure in 2014, and I am less sure now. I suspect her progressive beliefs were sincere, but that they fell prey to a number of factors later in her premiership — among them bad advice from the out-of-province advisers with whom she replaced Carter, pressure and conniving from the economic and social conservative right within PC party circles, the constant attacks of the Wildrose opposition, and the flaws in her own character.

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, Redford cannot be excused from her own role in her downfall.

We know many of her advisers complained she wouldn’t listen to them. We don’t know what they advised her to do. 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 beggars the imagination, then and now.

Still, I doubt Redford came up with all this herself. That said, there is little doubt the fundamental flaw in her character was that she simply never got it that it wasn’t all about Alison. In that, alas, she is hardly unique.

The real tragedy of Alison Redford, though is that she really could have helped to build a better society in Alberta and ease this province away from the real catastrophe it had been driving toward since Ralph Klein’s premiership.

That is, to be nothing but an undemocratic petrostate, the beneficiaries of which will simply walk away with their bags of money when the party is over.

Redford could have made a bigger difference — and certainly 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.

Maybe in the end, she was just too persuasive for the flawed person she turned out to be, and therefore we were all bound for disappointment. Her departure — she was in effect fired by her own caucus — represented a genuine tragedy, a lost opportunity for Alberta, and for Redford herself.

However, while she may not have succeeded, she changed the place all the same, igniting a longing among many Albertans for a more progressive government, more in tune with the era, with the realities of a changing world.

At the end of 2014, the question asked by many Albertans was, How can we build a better Alberta now that Redford has burned our bridges, as well as hers?

The PCs thought they had found the answer: Jim Prentice, come from Ottawa, to restore the Tory dynasty founded by Peter Lougheed. Albertans begged to disagree.

By the spring of 2015, when Prentice called an early election after persuading much of the Wildrose opposition caucus to cross the floor and join the PCs, Albertans had found a better answer of their own.

They elected the NDP led by Rachel Notley to a majority government. And while it had its flaws, as all governments do, it turned out to be a pretty good government too.

This has been seen in retrospect as a triumph of Redford’s flaws. The government that followed the NDP, the United Conservative Party led by Jason Kenney, would very much like you to see the NDP as a fluke that was partly the fault of Redford.

But in a way it was a triumph of her best qualities too — her progressive instincts, at the very least, ignited the hope Alberta really could be a better place, and opened the eyes of Albertans to the fact that was possible.

That changed politics here forever.

The rise of the UCP in 2019 was not a surprise. Governments change. Kenney’s leadership was sold, persuasively, as a return to the progressive conservative values of old. His promises, which we now know he has almost entirely failed to deliver on, were beguiling.

We can now see the UCP more clearly for what it is: the redoubt of the bitter enders of the Wildrose Party, with not much of a plan for the present, let alone one for the future. It is addicted to confrontation, and it has a long list of enemies it wants to confront. It is in denial about the future of the fossil fuel industry. Its leaders are acolytes of a cruel ideology that rarely delivers on its promises.

Sic transit gloria mundi Alison Redford?

I don’t think so. Alberta’s story isn’t over yet, and it doesn’t have to be written with the pen held by Jason Kenney.

Alison Redford played her part in making a better future possible.

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 at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image credit: David J. Climenhaga

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...