‘Aura of power’ to blame for Redford’s expense abuses

Globe editorial

The Globe and Mail

Published Thursday, Aug. 07 2014, 7:00 PM EDT

Last updated Thursday, Aug. 07 2014, 7:03 PM EDT

“The aura of power” is a surprisingly poetic phrase for a provincial auditor-general’s report, but the elusiveness of who decided to spend what, in the premier’s office when Alison Redford was premier of Alberta, justifies that explanation of abuses, from Merwan Saher, the auditor-general.

Prime ministers and premiers cannot reasonably be expected to be their own bookkeepers, but one of the purposes of their having staffers at all is to protect first ministers from committing follies of a kind that were evidently rife in Ms. Redford’s rather short premiership. Instead, much of her staff seemed to participate in her hapless inability to draw distinctions among genuine government business, partisan politics and personal life.

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The rumour mill, by contrast, seemed to be well attuned to such distinctions. For example, the previously reported “ghost” bookings for seats on government aircraft, seemingly intended to give more space to Ms. Redford and her inner circle on plane trips, turns out to have been a real practice. No one has admitted to originating this idea, and the former premier and her former chief of staff maintain that they knew nothing about this “block booking.” They were apparently content to inhabit a bubble.

Much of Ms. Redford’s political misfortune was rooted in her victory in the party leadership election of 2011. The Progressive Conservatives opened up the election to any and all Albertans, whether or not they had previously been party members. Many who voted for Ms. Redford were not small-c conservatives at all.

As a result, when she became premier, she had little rapport or affinity with much of her own caucus. To many of the Conservative MLAs, she seemed distant and arrogant. Her international travels, and the private suite being constructed in a government building, did not help.

There are now signs of an overreaction. Premier David Hancock is talking about referring Mr. Saher’s report to the RCMP. But the report says nothing about fraud or any other kind of crime.

Mr. Saher is too sensible for that. Instead, he rightly deplores the lack of measures to prevent high-ranking public servants from their own “bad judgment,” and the reluctance to challenge dubious decisions in the premier’s office. Evidently the “aura of power” took on a life of its own.

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