EDMONTON – Alberta Premier Alison Redford was a leader under siege Thursday, facing caucus turmoil, a dysfunctional office and an accusation that she is an abusive bully, prone to tantrums and fits of rage.
It’s the latest chapter in what has become Redford’s nightmarish narrative of sagging support amid revelations of lavish spending on herself and her inner circle.
On Wednesday, she tried to stem the caucus revolt by agreeing to pay back $45,000 she and her aide, Brad Stables, spent to fly to South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s funeral.
That was not enough, however, to stop Calgary backbencher Len Webber from quitting caucus Thursday to sit as an Independent.
Webber told reporters in Calgary that Redford is disrespectful and has issues with uncontrolled anger.
“She’s just really not a nice lady,” Webber said. “I cannot return to work and sit on the same side as long as Alison Redford is sitting at the helm.”
Webber had already announced his intention to seek the Conservative nomination in the new federal riding of Calgary Confederation.
Webber said he has personally felt Redford’s sting.
“She has treated me with disrespect. I have told her head-on, before the leadership review (last November), that I would not be supporting her because of the way she treats people,” he said.
“I believe that you should treat people the way that you expect to be treated, and that is with respect, and I don’t see that.”
Redford, asked later by reporters in Edmonton for her reaction to Webber’s remarks, said “no reaction.”
She made the comment as she left Government House. Inside, Redford’s caucus met without her to hash out matters in a private discussion. Many refused to say anything when they emerged.
Deputy premier Dave Hancock said as far as he knows, no one else is leaving caucus and measures will be in place to make sure everyone feels they have a voice.
“This premier is a very strong premier. She has got strong leadership qualities and she has a strong caucus.”
Hancock said Webber’s remarks are tainted by the fact he is an ex-cabinet minister.
“He could not take the fact that in this business there are ups and there are downs,” said Hancock.
“He’s a very sad man.”
Hancock, house leader Robin Campbell and Health Minister Fred Horne said they have not seen any examples of abusive behaviour on the part of the premier.
Redford’s “no reaction” was her only public comment Thursday.
After returning from Government House, she did not attend the start of question period to take questions from the other leaders. She has missed question period three of the last four days.
When news photographers camped outside the main entrance to her office, hoping to catch a shot of her in the hallway, her staff shut the door.
There were problems in her communications office.
Redford was to fly to Regina on Thursday for a conference with Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and British Columbia’s Christy Clark.
Rumours surfaced Wednesday that Redford would not make the trip, but her office reassured reporters late Wednesday that she would go. By Thursday morning, reporters learned through Wall’s office that Redford would not be going but that the three premiers would talk by phone.
Redford’s communications director, Stefan Baranski, disputed the characterization of dysfunction in the office. He said the change of plans did not merit a news release.
“We don’t want to put out a news release when travel plans change,” said Baranski.
NDP Leader Brian Mason said business is falling by the wayside: bills are not being presented, no one is speaking to the bills before the legislature and the house is adjourning early.
“The government is essentially paralyzed,” said Mason.
During question period Thursday afternoon, Redford’s two lieutenants, Hancock and Campbell, employed the premier’s unused desk for their overflow of books and briefing notes. All around them Tory MLAs were varying shades of grim as opposition members questioned them again on their use of government planes for party fundraisers.
The PC bleakness, though, didn’t extend to Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk. He declined to endorse Redford’s leadership on the way in to the caucus meeting and didn’t stop to talk to reporters after.
The Edmonton member was recently demoted by Redford from his post as deputy premier and minister for advanced education.
“Are you still a member of caucus?” a reporter asked Lukaszuk as he walked from Government House.
“Of course I am. It was a very productive conversation,” said Lukaszuk, without breaking stride.
Following Lukaszuk in the scrum was Baranski, though he said it was only coincidental.
During question period, while his colleagues looked glumly on, Lukaszuk rocked and swivelled in his chair at the end of the front bench, smiling and waving to people in the gallery.
— With files from CHQR in Calgary