Auditor general Merwan Saher’s investigation into Redford’s abuse of the province’s taxpayer-funded fleet of planes has sent shockwaves through the corridors of provincial power in Edmonton, leading to calls for an RCMP investigation, as well as the resignation of Finance Minister Doug Horner, under whose watch the abuse took place.
“The overall conclusion is that Premier Redford and her office used public resources inappropriately,” said Saher, during a press conference in Edmonton last week. “That’s not just me exercising my personal view as to what is appropriate and what isn’t appropriate. Appropriateness is judged in compliance with government policies, and most importantly, the principles that underline those policies. So when I say used government resources inappropriately, I mean not complying with policy, not complying with standards, principles — in simple language, not proper, and not right.”
Redford resigned from her position as Calgary-Elbow MLA the day before Saher’s report was released on Thursday. The former premier resigned from that office in March amid allegations of exorbitant expenses, while facing an MLA revolt over her alleged heavy-handed practices in dealing with caucus.
“Premier Redford and her office consistently failed to demonstrate, in the documents we examined, that their travel expenses were necessary, and a reasonable and appropriate use of public resources,” said Saher. “Premier Redford used public resources for personal and partisan purposes, and inappropriately by restricting access, through use of the government aircraft fleet.”
The 44-page report indicates then-premier Redford used the government’s fleet of planes for partisan purposes at least three times, as well as for personal purposes, which included flying her daughter.
“This is the sense we have. The working around rules, the tendency, even to ignore rules, is to fulfill requests coming from the premier’s office in ways that avoided leaving the premier with personal responsibility for those decisions,” said Saher.
“What I’m really talking about is the ability for someone in an office at a very senior level to exert influence. Others who had to interact with the premier and her office, I think they felt in some way…trapped in this. After all the premier is the premier. The premier should be afforded certain courtesies. This is being asked, it’s what the premier wants, I’ll do it. That is the problem.”
Saher touched on the creation of the premier’s so-called “sky palace” residential suite that had been planned for construction in a government building, but admitted he had not been tasked with this investigation as part of his probe of expenses, and would not comment extensively on the issue.
On the use of the government’s air fleet, Saher noted it had not been explained why an internal report indicating $3.9 million could have been saved using commercial aircraft had been ignored, or if the overall cost of fleet operation was justified for government purposes considering the alternatives.
“The department of treasury board and finance has not explained to Albertans why it believes the extra costs of alternatives to owning a fleet of aircraft is judged to be worthwhile. One of the facts that is arguably the most troubling is the personal use of public assets. That’s a fact, and that’s wrong,” said Saher.
Cardston-Taber-Warner MLA Gary Bikman commented the auditor general’s report is typical of what can happen when a polical party has held sway over provincial office for far too long.
“I think it reveals the truth of the old saying that power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. If 43 years of one-party rule isn’t absolute power, then I don’t know what is. I think what we’re seeing is a general consequence of just being in there for so long. She (Redford) may have taken it to a whole new level of inappropriate-ness, and the auditor general has showed that. It’s throughout the government. With the planes, he showed that there’s no regard right across the board.”
Although an RCMP investigation into Redford’s expenses is certainly warranted, Bikman called for a public inquiry to investigate the practices of the ruling government overall.
“I think there needs to be an RCMP investigation into the specifics on the issues regarding Redford. But I think there needs to be a public inquiry into the whole thing, because the auditor general said he couldn’t look beyond just the narrow scope that he was asked to look at. What he saw, you can see indications of a similar kind of misuse, and lack of accountability. So I think we need a public inquiry.”
Some culpability for the debacle must be borne by the minister responsible as well as the rest of caucus, according to Bikman, who went on to attack the government’s recent whistleblower legislation as less than useless under the circumstances.
“If they weren’t aware of it, then they’re not smart enough to hold the job, and they don’t deserve the trust of the people. If they were aware of it, then they’re not worthy of the trust. Either they chose to ignore it, or it was fear of speaking up. If your whole caucus is that out of whack, that no one stands up and says something — if there really was whistleblower protection, you’d think this would have happened.”
In his report, Saher stopped short of criticizing the entire public service of Alberta, indicating there was no evidence for a widespread disregard of policies and rules.
The report did include a recommendation for the treasury board to institute an improved oversight procedure with regard to the office of the premier.
“I believe if there had been oversight, arguably the failings that are chronicled in this report might have been prevented or detected earlier,” said Saher. “And I mean oversight with the capacity to challenge substantively — it has to be oversight that has the authority, the capacity, and the will to challenge the authority that is embodied in the premier.”
Interim Premier Dave Hancock called for an RCMP investigation into Redford’s actions last week following the release of the report.
The Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta has also promised to pay back $6,500 to cover the three government flights that were used for partisan purposes.