Alberta legislature wraps up spring sitting

Sitting was marked by the spectacular fall of former premier Alison Redford

EDMONTON – One of the most dramatic sessions in the history of the Alberta legislature was set to wrap up Thursday.

It was a session that started with one premier, ended with another, and will resume in the fall with a new face altogether.

Premier Dave Hancock dismissed opposition criticism that the session ended too early, after seven weeks of sitting days, with little substantive legislation being passed.

“The session always lasts as long as the essential work that needs to be done,” said Hancock.

It was a sitting ultimately to be remembered not for the bills but for the spectacular political supernova of Alison Redford.

In the space of three weeks in March, Redford went from being Alberta’s 14th premier to being a disgraced backbencher after Progressive Conservative party members and caucus mates turned on her over escalating revelations of opulent spending.

She used government planes for party fundraisers and to ferry herself and her daughter on getaways. She spent $45,000 to fly her and her aide first-class to Nelson Mandela’s South Africa funeral and back.

Even after she left, the revelations continued. Memos showed that she was using taxpayer money on a planned posh penthouse on top of the government’s refurbished Federal Building — a stone’s throw from the legislature.

The suite was to boast grooming areas, change areas, bedrooms, dining areas, a butler pantry, a fireplace and a breathtaking balcony view of the legislature building.

Her chief of staff, it turned out, was paid more than U.S. President Barack Obama’s, and when her aides left with Redford they pocketed $1.3 million in total severance.

Redford quit as poll numbers bottomed out in the low 20 per cent range — just ahead of the NDP and Liberals. The Opposition Wildrose party soared into a commanding lead.

Under Hancock, named premier until the party picks a permanent replacement, the focus of the sitting abruptly changed to one of damage control and fence mending. He told 1,300 party members at a fundraising dinner that his caucus was sorry for abrogating party values and would work to restore trust.

Under Hancock, the government abandoned a controversial law passed under Redford that stripped bargaining rights and imposed wage freezes and tiny pay hikes on its largest union, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees. The government agreed to a tentative deal of 6.75 per cent wage increases over three years.

It also presented — and then pulled — two pension reform bills that unions and other critics warned could gut retirement benefits during economic downturns and create a stampede of early retirements in a labour force already lagging behind Alberta’s roaring petro-fuelled economy.

After saying for more than a year that the bills had had enough consultation and were ready to pass, Finance Minister Doug Horner agreed to put them over for the summer for more consultation.

There were some accomplishments.

The government passed a budget with a $1.1-billion day-to-day operating surplus, but with long-term debt of $21 billion in the coming years.

It passed a bill to broaden public reporting and investigations on children who are severely injured or die while in government care.

The race to replace Redford culminates with voting in September.

So far, only former cabinet ministers Ken Hughes and Ric McIver have jumped in. Both are promising to curb the excess of the Redford era.

The Opposition has made it clear that all current caucus members will have to answer for their sins of silence during Redford’s rule.

“Any person who is trying to lead the Progressive Conservatives has to wear (the fact) that it is a 43-year-old government and has had some really bad practices over the last number of years,” said Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith.

“I don’t think it can be fixed by any one person.”

Redford all but disappeared from public life for six weeks after she quit. She popped up occasionally on Twitter with highlights of constituency work in her Calgary-Elbow riding and was seen on social media relaxing in Palm Springs, Calif.

This week, she returned to the legislature, telling reporters in her three-minute back-to-work scrum that she won’t comment on the past because it is the past.

“Do you have anything new (to ask me) or are we done?” she asked.

It was a downbeat end to an upbeat session kickoff on March 3.

Redford held a pep rally that day for her caucus. Media were invited to take pictures and roll tape on a smiling premier surrounded by her cheering teammates.

OK everyone, said Redford as the flashbulbs popped.

“Let’s have fun.”