In conversation: Alison Redford

By Beverley Spencer July - August 2012

Alberta's Premier discusses her plans for a Canadian energy strategy, and how her years in international development shaped her approach to politics.

In conversation: Alison Redford Photography by Marnie Burkhart

National: You have an unusual political résumé. Can you talk about your career before politics?

Alison Redford: The theme that I’ve seen that I couldn’t have identified as I was going through my life is that I really have a commitment to trying to engage community in public policy. So many of the decisions that we make in government or even in independent agencies and the court system are all about decisions that will impact the way that we live our day-to-day lives. The people who are connected to their families and their communities and thinking about the challenges that they face on a day-to-day basis have to be part of the conversation because very often they’re going to have the perspectives that will allow decision-makers to make the right decisions for the future.

National: You managed a constitutional development project for the Canadian Bar Association in South Africa. What role can organizations like the CBA play in developing countries and why should Canadians be there?

Alison Redford: One of the reasons from a legal perspective is that our constitutional model is very important. Our Charter truly is a beacon for human rights: It speaks to a tremendously important balance. Section 1 is critical to the public conversation with respect to rights in community and from that perspective it’s very important that we share those experiences whether those are experiences that we have even learned from because we continue to change our system or whether other countries can take a look at our models and see what might work.

One of the things that I’ve found interesting is to hear commentary about the work that is happening around traditional training and the training of lawyers around the world so that everyone who’s part of the system including legislators, lawyers, judges, all understand what that constitutional framework looks like. Even today I turned on the news and they were talking about how in Burma now, as they move towards more democracy, the fundamental principle must be the rule of law. That the rule of law is there to protect people and that people have a responsibility to respect those rules. So it’s fundamental to what democratic rule looks like.

National: What did your experience in South Africa teach you about managing institutional and societal change?

Alison Redford: I learned that change is scary. It can be very exciting. But often, even though people can see that it’s a good idea, people are motivated by how it’s going to affect their lives. That sense of uncertainty is probably one of the greatest challenges that we face whenever we try to make transformational change. In order to ensure that we can keep a change agenda moving forward, it’s important to be listening, it’s important to be consulting and to be bringing people into the process so that it’s very much a participatory process. 

National: You built an election system in Afghanistan from the ground up. How did that affect your view of the democratic process here in Canada?

"The greatest challenge right now is that people — not just premiers but people across the country — need to understand how much the world is changing."

Alison Redford: I went to Afghanistan to be the Canadian International Commissioner, the lawyer who was going to work on implementing the rules. So I arrived the first day and I say to my fellow commissioners who were from Australia and the United States, “Well, where’s the election law?” “Well, we don’t have one yet.” And so the first job was to actually work with a lot of other Canadian lawyers who’d done work in places like Kosovo and Bosnia to draft a set of rules that would allow for an election to take place.

That was a tremendous opportunity for us to think through what an election system looks like, why it looks like that, why we have certain rules in place and to not take any of that for granted. It was a really great opportunity to be able to explain to people why we have the system that we have, how to balance the system in the context of cultural differences. And so from my perspective to be able to think through the foundations of democracy, free elections, free speech, the right to vote, was really profound. Because even though I’d worked in international development for 15, 16 years, at that point, I had to re-examine everything that I knew and understood. 

National: How did that impact your transition to political life? 

Alison Redford: I remember once going into a small school in Helmand Province (in Afghanistan) where I was speaking to women about voting. I wasn’t explaining to them the importance of voting, I was explaining to them what a vote was, that they were going to have the right to go into a booth completely alone and cast a ballot. What struck me wasn’t just that conversation, but that they had a sense that it was important because they’d all brought their daughters with them. And it got me thinking about how people connect to government and how I was sitting there saying, “you can have a voice in government and there are these incredible opportunities.” And so when I came back my daughter was five and I thought it was time for me to decide whether or not being involved in public policy was enough or whether I wanted to actually help to make the decisions that shaped it — not from the outside but from the decision-making table. That’s why I decided to run.

National: Canada has a poor record for voter turnout and it seems to be getting worse. Does it frustrate you that perhaps Canadians don’t appreciate what it means to vote? And what can be done about it?

Alison Redford: […] We really have to bring politics back to the kitchen table and to the school boards and to the community so people feel that they can make a difference. That’s going to have, I believe, a tremendous impact on voter turnout […] It is the responsibility of elected politicians to reach out to and consult with communities to ensure that people know that the process that is in place is not one where government simply makes a decision and then tries to communicate that decision […] We have to use more social media. We have to use more online consultation. There has to be dynamic conversation face-to-face with people and we can’t be afraid of political debate. But one of the challenges with that is that if you want to have that kind of an open-ended policy conversation, people have to have a sense that this is how we now do things because it is different than how we’ve seen politics practised, I think, in a lot of places around the world and in some cases in Canada. The public may look at that process and say well, this doesn’t sound as if we have a government that knows exactly where they want to go. From my perspective I think it’s important for political leadership to define what their values are, what the long term direction is and then to talk to people about the different options to get there and I think that’s where the consultation comes in. 

National: How do you intend to use this public consultative process to promote a national energy strategy?

Alison Redford: Well, it’s a Canadian energy strategy — it’s not a national energy strategy and the reason for the difference is that we’re very much emphasizing the fact that each province in our country has energy resources. When I talk to premiers across the country, we all know that we want to capitalize on those resources in order to ensure economic development and jobs in our province in the future, diversification and growth. And so the conversation that is taking place right now which is one of those evolving policy conversations is to say we as provinces need to come together to decide how to work together and partner to create a more sustainable and integrated energy economy and that will look different in different parts of the country.

Manitoba has a tremendous amount of hydro and would like to see an east/west electricity grid that would allow them to provide the resources from their province to Alberta so that we can continue our economic growth with our energy economy in an even more sustainable way. And that kind of relationship allows for Canadians across the country to benefit from an energy economy, whether that resource is in Alberta or in Nova Scotia. 

National: Is it easier to accomplish social change in an environment where there’s a rich tradition of mediation and interest-based negotiation?

Alison Redford: At the time that I was in South Africa, community engagement was important; it was partly cultural and it was partly political. When I came back to Canada, I was quite surprised that I’d forgotten how little of that there was in our system. But that was 1996. When I look now at Canada there’s a very different approach. We see it in terms of legal reform, judicial reform, court restructuring, around a lot of different issues. I do think it makes it easier because when you are trying to make big changes, you do have to bring people to the table. It is very much based on mediation, interest-based bargaining, trying to sort out how everyone can achieve common goals. So if you can bring those values to any conversation it does allow for greater change. 

National: What’s your sense of how many of the premiers share those values?

"We really have to bring politics back to the kitchen table and to the school boards and to the community so people feel that they can make a difference."

Alison Redford: I really enjoy working with the premiers across the country right now. I think in terms of a generational change and the commitment to Canada that we are very much aligned. And I feel very strongly at those tables that that is the approach that our first ministers are taking. As premiers we understand that there are many challenges that we all face together right now and whether we’re talking about education or health care or energy, we see very common approaches and goals. It’s a strong group of people that I think share those same values and are aligned with that approach.

National: Of course, other political actors are involved in this conversation. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair was accused of being divisive with his comments about Dutch disease and the oil sands. How do you engage critics in this process?

Alison Redford: It’s very important for people who are purporting to be national leaders to understand that they need to be national leaders for all of Canada. In the past we have had trouble in our country when political leadership has used regional differences for political gain. And I’ve been fairly public already about the fact that I believe that that is what is happening now. I think it’s entirely appropriate to have a conversation with respect to economic development, social outcomes and environmental sustainability but it has to be an informed discussion and it has to take into account everything that’s part of the equation. And I really can’t endorse an approach where people are trying to create divisions for political benefit and I’m disappointed to see it happen.

National: What do you identify as some of the obstacles to moving forward with a Canadian energy strategy?

Alison Redford: The greatest challenge right now is that people — not just premiers but people across the country — need to understand how much the world is changing; markets are changing, the consumers are changing, the production and technology are changing. That changes the cost of energy. It also changes where we want to market our energy. It changes the way that we as consumers want to use our energy. And so to me a Canadian energy strategy is also thinking through what we want to look like in 20 or 30 years. What do we look like in terms of how we’re continuing to provide energy to our economy? What will we as consumers choose to be the way forward? Are we going to make some of those difficult choices where we are going to pay more for energy in order to ensure that we are being as sustainable as we want to be?

So for me a very large part of this is to really speak to people about how all of these pieces fit together. Because using our energy more responsibly, producing it in a more sustainable way, thinking about whether or not we shift to more compressed natural gas, all make a difference and at the same time to think through what increases in production will mean. 

We have in the United States right now a tremendous amount of development with respect to gas. We have the opportunity probably in North America, to be quite self-sustaining over the next 15 to 20 years. Is that what we want to do as North Americans? Do we want to make sure that we are sustainable ourselves and then export to other parts of the world? Do we think it’s more important to be exporting to other parts of the world right now? It’s a very interesting and exciting conversation that we’re only beginning to have as Canadians. And there’s a lot of opportunity for people that have even varying interests, whether it’s hydro or wind or solar or conventional to come into this and to think about how to best build our economy for the future. 

National: You’re talking about long-term thinking and long-term planning. That’s notoriously difficult in a political environment that is dealing in very short time horizons. How do you overcome that challenge?

Alison Redford: You launch intelligent conversations with Canadians. I look at a lot of politicians that I’ve seen. There’s some in my province and in other places nationally and provincially who take a very simplistic approach to public policy and I think Canadians are smarter than that. There are many people who understand that a lot of these issues are complicated. What they want is a political process and a policy process that respects the fact that they can appreciate that some of the things that we might want to do are going to take five, 10 or 15 years.

One of the things that Canadians have said is we’re tired of politicians that think in those four-year time frames because that doesn’t always bring out the best public policy for us as Canadians. If you go back in history and look to the people that we in Canada believe have been our greatest political leaders, they are the leaders who’ve taken the time to respect the conversation and to put forth that vision and to have Canadians be part of that vision.

This interview was edited and condensed for publication.
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