Alberta Premier Redford curtails use of government planes amidst travel to-do
Alberta Premier Alison Redford speaks at a press conference following the 2013 Council of the Federation fall meeting in Toronto on November 15, 2013. (Mark Blinch / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press
Published Tuesday, March 4, 2014 6:59PM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 9:00PM EST
EDMONTON -- Alberta Premier Alison Redford revealed Tuesday that she spent taxpayers' money to fly her daughter's friends around on government aircraft, but says she will now pay back the $3,100 tab.
Redford also announced she is grounding the government aircraft fleet from flying out of province until the auditor general completes a review on whether taxpayers are getting value for their money.
Redford told a news conference that in the past year and a half she invited friends on the government plane four times to provide company for her daughter, Sarah.
A year ago, said Redford, she and Sarah also took a government plane to Vancouver to attend an uncle's funeral, although she said she had other meetings, including one with India's consul general. The cost of that trip is also part of the $3,100.
"On a few occasions when I know that my schedule will be demanding, I've encouraged Sarah to bring along a friend," said Redford.
"But upon reflection, taxpayers should not have to pay any of the costs that are associated with my daughter's friends' travel."
Redford, who became emotional at times, said it was about trying to balance the demands of parenthood with premiership.
"I'm the premier of Alberta, but I'm also the mother to a daughter who I love to spend time with," she said. "I think many mothers can relate to that, and I don't always get to do that."
Her announcement came after she faced renewed sharp questions over her travel spending from all three opposition parties during the first question period of the spring sitting.
Redford has been under fire for weeks over revelations of lavish spending for herself and her inner circle.
Those expenses include $45,000 for her and her aide, Brad Stables, to fly to South Africa to join Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the funeral for Nelson Mandela in December.
Both Redford and Nova Scotia's premier, Stephen McNeil, used Harper's aircraft to fly across the Atlantic, but McNeil's total bill for the trip was under $1,000.
Redford has apologized for the high price tag, saying her staff didn't follow travel protocols.
She has also been criticized for using the government aircraft to fly her, her daughter and bodyguards back from Palm Springs to get to former premier Ralph Klein's funeral last year.
Government records also reveal that the Calgary-based Stables has so far charged taxpayers more than $9,000 to stay at one of Edmonton's most expensive hotels when working in the capital.
Newly revealed salary lists also show that Redford's chief of staff, Farouk Adatia, makes $316,000 a year compared with the $172,000 maximum for the chief of staff to U.S. President Barack Obama.
All opposition leaders say the issue is not about the money but about respect for taxpayers.
NDP Leader Brian Mason noted that Redford is living large while her government has cut social program funding, axed grants to post-secondary institutions and negotiated lean wage deals with teachers and doctors.
Redford's government also tried to legislate a similar austere wage deal with other public sector workers, but a judge has put that law on hold pending a hearing on whether it violates charter freedoms relating to fair collective bargaining.
"It is about a lack of respect for the people who pay the bills," said Mason.
Wildrose critic Rob Anderson agreed.
"If she conducts herself, and her government conducts itself, in this way on the small things ... what's going on in health care? What's going on in education and seniors? Where does the waste end?" he said.
The criticism has not been confined to the opposition.
Redford said she, too, has heard an earful from some Albertans.
Two weeks ago, one of her backbenchers, Steve Young, said the issue has led to disgruntlement in caucus -- something that seemed evident in the house during question period Tuesday as opposition members hammered away at Redford.
Opponents asked Redford 10 times in a row to repay the South Africa money. They accused her of living high on the hog, of stealing from Albertans and running a government of hypocrisy.
For the most part Redford's caucus, sitting all around her, were quiet.
They didn't shout back across the aisle.
When Redford answered a question, they either half-heartedly pounded their desks in support or just sat on their hands and stared blankly ahead.