PHOTOS: Former premier Alison Redford at the moment of her leadership campaign victory in 2011. Below: Former opposition leader Danielle Smith in a typical campaign pose last summer.

Back in the mists of time, or rather, Time, there used to be a regular December feature called “Man of the Year.”

That was amended to “Person of the Year” in the 28th year of Progressive Conservative rule here in Alberta, and no doubt many in that party are still upset by the change, being symptomatic, as it were, of that other kind of PC they so love to disparage.

Other news organizations that want to do the same thing but not admit that it was someone else’s idea often use the term “Newsmaker of the Year.”

Call it what you will, I was thinking in preparation for the arrival of 2015 that Alberta’s news-making person of the year in 2014 is undoubtedly a woman. The only question is, which one?

That is to say, was the 2014 newsmaker of the year in Alberta former premier Alison Redford, or former opposition leader Danielle Smith?

I’m guessing the prevailing view in mainstream media will be the title belongs to Ms. Smith, mainly because their attention spans are short and Google, pretty much the only remaining research tool of post-journalistic journalists, tends to push the most recent news stories to the top of the list.

But a much stronger case can be made that Ms. Redford deserves the title. Hers is not a happy story, or even a particularly enlightening one, but it is far more significant.

As for Ms. Smith, let’s deal with her quickly. She sounded good, but turned out to be just another glib careerist with a second-rate mind.

If anyone had been paying attention to her history, this should have been obvious. Professor Tom Flanagan – who was once her teacher at the University of Calgary and whom she later tossed over the side without a moment’s thought when he became an embarrassment – is said to have thought she was a brilliant student. But other than a cheerful insincerity combined with determined attachment to the discredited nostrums of neoliberalism, did she really accomplish all that much? Where had she been and what had she done before she entered politics? The answers are Alberta, and writing press releases for various branches of the Canadian outrage industry, mainly.

The remarkable accomplishment of building up the Wildrose Party overnight – and dismantling it in even less time – was mostly done by others. Really, Ms. Smith’s claim to personhood of the year is based on the sheer breathtaking egregiousness of her self-serving hypocrisy a few days ago.

Well, it was a great news story, but like most news stories it was only a flash in the pan.

The rise and fall of Ms. Redford – her personal tragedy and the tragic lost potential of her short spell as premier – is another matter entirely.

How anyone with the first-rate mind, as evidenced by her international and professional accomplishments before entering politics, and the huge potential of Ms. Redford could go so spectacularly, so catastrophically wrong is a mystery for everyone to contemplate. My sense is that many of those who knew her are as astounded as those of us who did not.

Certainly she lacked support in key corners of her own party. It was not just the “Old Boys” who didn’t like her, and wanted her to fail, although that was manifestly the case, but also many of the ideologues and financial bagmen who lurk in the shadows of conservative politics. Subverting the progressive and democratic instincts of Ed Stelmach, which were at least talked about by Ms. Redford when it appeared they were the key to victory, was why they bankrolled the Wildrose Party in the first place.

So, even if she had done everything right, things might well have ended in tears for Ms. Redford and her most ardent supporters.

Nevertheless, she offered an appealing and persuasive new face to Albertans at the start of her run toward power in 2011 and 2012. She picked her initial campaign team well, and she placed herself for campaign purposes in the sweet spot of the political-economic psyche of most Albertans – the moderately conservative centre, with a strong dose of progressivism on a variety of issues.

Were those Ms. Redford’s own views, or the positioning of Stephen Carter, the sharp political advisor she hired to run her campaign and be her first chief of staff? The prevailing view nowadays, I guess, is that Ms. Redford was a tabula rasa upon which Mr. Carter wrote, and the whole project went to hell in a hand basket when he left her staff.

I am not so sure. I suspect her progressive beliefs were sincere enough, but that they fell prey to a number of factors later in her rule – including bad advice from the out-of-province advisors with whom she replaced Mr. Carter, pressure and conniving from the economic right within PC party circles as well as from the Wildrose opposition, and the quite apparent flaws in her own character.

Ms. Redford surely cannot be excused from her own role in her downfall. We know many of her advisors complained she wouldn’t listen to them. We will probably never know what she was advised to do. But listen or not, whatever she was told, what on earth could have persuaded a brilliant woman to countenance unethical and transparent schemes like the fakes-on-a-plane scam, to have thought it was appropriate to spend $45,000 in public funds for herself and one aide to travel to South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s funeral, or to have allowed plans to proceed to secretly build a $2-million private residence for her and her daughter atop a government building?

It simply beggars the imagination! I doubt she came up with all this herself, but there is no doubt that the fundamental flaw in her character was that she simply never got it that it wasn’t just all about Alison.

The real tragedy of Ms. Redford, assuming her initial progressive beliefs reflected something more than cynical opportunism, is that she could have helped to build a better society in Alberta and ease this province away from the real catastrophe it has been driving toward since Ralph Klein’s premiership. That is, an undemocratic petro-state, the beneficiaries of which will simply walk away with their bags of money when the party is over.

Obviously, we will get no relief from that fate from either Premier Jim Prentice or Ms. Smith, whatever her role in the Prentice Government turns out to be.

Ms. Redford, I am certain, could have made a difference – and may have wanted to make a difference – if only she could somehow have conquered her own personal demons.

Instead, she chose – or was pushed, or both – to betray her own promises and turn on her most enthusiastic supporters, and to behave in ways that were both bound to be discovered and to destroy any chance of success she may have had.

Alison Redford’s betrayal of herself, her potential and her supporters was a far bigger and more worthy story than the pedestrian self-interest displayed by her rival for the title of person of the year.

How will we build a better Alberta now that Ms. Redford has burned our bridges, as well as hers? Danielle Smith, by contrast, is exposed as a garden-variety hypocrite. That is all.

Maybe in the end, both of them were just too persuasive for the flawed people they turned out to be, and thus we were all bound for disappointment. But Ms. Redford represents a genuine tragedy that impacts many more Albertans than just her and her loved ones, and for that it is a history worth thinking about, researching and writing about.

Sic transit gloria mundi. Alberta, I give you Alison Redford, Person of the Year!

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  1. For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
    The saddest are these: “It might have been!”
    – John Greenleaf Whittier

    Politics seems to be full of sad words these days.

  2. I like the column, it is well reasoned.

    When I ask myself which Premier since 1971 has done more to help the poor, Redford reigns. She raised the payment to AISH recipients.

    In stark contrast, Ralph berated the poor, the jobless, and the homeless. Ralph was easily the most pernicious Premier in Alberta history.

    The rest of the Tory Premiers all served their benefactors and enriched the 1%. Prentice and Smith will keep in step with mode and they will systemically make the poor pay for Alberta’s pathological dependence on oil revenue.

  3. This is as fine an example of journalism as any — a longer view and one that seeks to look behind the headline or even the parade of headlines. Great read.

    You touch on one thing I find very interesting. There are people who go into politics or lead organizations because they want to do good, and correctly (at least at the outset) feel they are a social force for progress. Some of those people become lost in that. They end up justifying small transgressions they should know are wrong and they do it because they are on the right side. And those small transgressions grow. People around them are motivated into not seeing those things (or ignoring them) because they too are “looking at the bigger picture.” In the end you find the most shocking cases of hypocrisy and many are so well hidden that they are never found out except by the people closest to the details. At other times they are suddenly exposed like Ms Redford’s. The moral can be that the more you believe you are a force for good, the more careful you have to be and the more careful should be those around you. I suspect there is a lot we don’t know about some of our greatest and most progressive leaders that would make us quite uncomfortable.

  4. She once held in the palms of her hands our collective hopes and dreams only to see them snuffed like a butterfly being suffocated.

  5. Redford not progressive. Progressive requires egalitarian attitude and only one party in Alberta is committed to equality: NDP

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