There’s a fresh wind blowing across Alberta politics this fall, but the most surprising things about Premier Alison Redford have nothing to do with her gender.

While a female leader in Tory Blue Alberta may surprise a lot of other Canadians, it actually surprised no one in this province. We’ve had more females in leadership roles (including mayors of Edmonton and Fort McMurray, lieutenant-governors and opposition leaders) than most other provinces have ever seen. It was because of five Alberta women (the Famous Five) that females in Canada came to be considered “persons” under the law. The province is named after a female, for heaven’s sake!

Rather, the most surprising thing about Premier Redford was the fact that she was such a long shot at the start of the contest. She had the support of only one sitting MLA, and not too much of a war chest of cash. She won the campaign solely with her bright mind, dogged campaigning and excellent debating skills. She’s an impressive public speaker. She also offered what the others seemed to lack: a compelling sense of fresh vision for the province.

Her first order of business — something that she promised to do during the leadership campaign — was to restore just over $100 million that had been yanked out of the education budget. Clearly this helped shore up her support among teachers, school boards and parents who were increasingly frustrated with the ups-and-downs of education financing. It also proves she understands that education is the single most important investment a provincial government can make.

She also offered a few surprises with her cabinet choices, appointing a mix of both old guard ministers (albeit with new portfolios) and a smattering of fresh, young faces. Her predecessor, Ed Stelmach, made a mistake (his first of several) the minute he appointed a cabinet based almost entirely on rewarding allies and punishing opponents. Redford, on the other hand, wisely appointed three of her five leadership competitors to plum posts. (The other two are not sitting MLAs.)

But the most surprising feature of Ms. Redford might well be her ability to be neither left nor right. She embodies what has been lacking in Alberta politics for so many years: someone who is finally ready to shed the tired old labels of being strictly small-c conservative or small-l liberal. And it’s about time. In the leadership campaign, most of her opponents pushed a platform emphasizing “conservative values” or wanting to “bring the party back to its conservative roots.” (They should be well aware, however, that Peter Lougheed, the first Progressive Conservative premier in Alberta, really emphasized the P — not the C — in the party’s name.)

Redford, though, avoids being pigeon-holed in one wing of the spectrum or the other. And the level of public discourse in the province will be better for it.
In terms of spending priorities, clearly education will be a winner. But the former education minister Dave Hancock (not reappointed to that portfolio) had just wrapped up a multi-year consultation on the future of education in the province. The Inspiring Education report contained some very important ideas, many of them groundbreaking for a North American education system. The challenge for Premier Redford and the new minister of education, Thomas Lukaszuk, will be to preserve the work contained in the Inspiring Education report and implement its recommendations. Too often new leaders are eager to put their own stamp on policy, and in the process they dump the excellent work done by previous administrations. Redford would prove her boldness if she sticks with the course already mapped out for education.

But Redford is, after all, still a Tory. Spending decisions will come under very close scrutiny, especially since her new minister of finance, Ron Liepert, is decidedly from the old guard of deficit slayers. The choice of Liepert was intentional. His appointment dispels any fears that she’s planning to back up the money truck with more spending and deficits. Oil prices are good, but with natural gas prices solidly in the sewer, there’s precious little extra money to spend. Achieving a balanced budget by 2014 will still be a tall order.

It’s a fresh start for Alberta. And despite the fact that the PC party has governed uninterrupted for over 40 years, the party has proved itself capable of re-invention. Kind of like Madonna or Elton John. Albertans are not as resistant to change as is rumoured. Alison Redford represents the party’s latest re-invention; if things work out well for her, the PC party has a good chance of making it to 50.

Photo: Shutterstock

Todd Hirsch
Todd Hirsch is the Calgary-based senior economist with ATB Financial and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline.

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