Two weeks after the resignation of Alison Redford as Premier, the blogosphere, op-ed pages and social media in Alberta and across the country are still full of people trying to make sense of what went wrong for Redford, and why she was pushed to resign just two years into her mandate.
There are some common threads running through most of these explanations and, as always, all of them contain some grain of truth. Was it the $45 000 trip to South Africa? Was it systemic misogyny run amok in the Legislature, the Conservative Party, and the mainstream media? Was it that she was a “bully” who could not play nicely with others? Yes, yes and yes.
All of these things undoubtedly played a role in her early departure from the halls of power, but they are all also loaded politically and inevitably serve one political agenda or another. There can be no doubt, for example, that the costs of the South Africa trip along with all the other outrageous travel expenses, and her team’s poor handling of them, were a major contributing factor. They highlighted for many Albertans just how entitled this government actually is and how disconnected they are from the daily realities of the people they represent.
For Albertans struggling to make ends meet amid growing inflation and stagnating wages to see their government spend more on one trip than they make in a year was eye-opening and rage-inducing. But this is not new. Ralph Klein famously spent hundreds of thousands of dollars during his tenure flying the government jet to private fishing trips with big-money party donors, and his popularity never waned because of it. What makes it different for Redford is that for the last 20 years, the extreme right in Alberta has worked extremely hard to convince us that government is by nature inefficient, wasteful and redundant. That message, delivered endlessly by the Fraser Institute, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and much of the mainstream media, and echoed gladly by the Wildrose Party, is part of their larger political agenda of privatization, low taxes, public-sector cuts and political disengagement.
While nobody would deny that level of spending and entitlement is problematic, when we focus on that exclusively, and make that the cornerstone of our outrage and anger, we must be aware that what we are doing is reinforcing this extremist right-wing frame and doing serious damage to our democracy and our confidence in quality public services funded through fair taxation.
Likewise, there can be no question that systemic misogyny played a significant role in Redford’s downfall. Her refusal to kowtow to the old-boys’ club that runs the caucus and the party resulted in the use of gender-loaded language to attack her. She was framed as “not a nice lady” and a “princess” who was “bossy” and threw “temper tantrums.” Yes, she had difficulty building allies within the caucus, and yes, she took a loud my-way-or-the-highway approach with staff and caucus members, but how is any of that any different than how Stephen Harper runs the inner circles of his government? Yet the media and other politicians do not use those kinds of words to describe him. He is framed as “authoritarian,” “iron fisted” and “demanding.” Certainly not positive words, but words not loaded with gender bias either.
Certainly we can speak of Redford’s leadership style without reinforcing the systemic misogyny that contributed to her demise, and we have a responsibility to do so.
But there is a bigger issue at play with these explanations. While reckless spending, a misogynistic party and her leadership style all contributed to her premature resignation, these things are all fundamentally about personality and anti-government rhetoric and make impossible a more meaningful discussion about the actual policy and legislative substance of her time in office.
This is a Premier who promised two-percent funding increases to post-secondary education during the election and then proceeded to cut funding seven percent in the very next budget. She promised stable and predictable funding to education and health care and delivered nothing but cuts in two consecutive budgets. She wooed the public service during the election and within two years had moved to freeze their salaries, gut their pensions and introduce legislation designed to take away their collective-bargaining rights and their freedom of association and free speech. All of these policies were a direct betrayal of everything she pretended to stand for during the election and of many of the people who supported her election bid.
It was ultimately the fight-back by Albertans against these policies and politics that combined with outrage about her travel costs and leadership style to create a perfect storm. To focus only on the latter is to ignore the role that her actual policies played in her departure. By doing so we are contributing to the emerging myth that it was about her, and not her politics or those of her party. The only thing that can come from that myth is the further disengagement of Albertans from politics, and the further entrenchment of the extremist right-wing ideology of privatization, low taxes and small government.
There is an opportunity at hand to build on the engagement Albertans are feeling. Let’s make sure we don’t waste it by omitting a key part of the story. V
Ricardo Acuña is the executive director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan, public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta.