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Alberta's first woman premier calls for more than talk about the deplorable treatment of women in politics

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Alison Redford on March 13, 2014 (David Climenhaga photo)

Alison Redford was certainly right when she told a radio interviewer yesterday we need to have a mature conversation about the treatment of women in politics -- outside the limits of a particular policy debate.

Alberta’s 14th premier, who led the province's government from October 2011 to March 2014, was also right when she warned it’s hard to separate a discussion of how a politician is treated from the passions aroused by entirely legitimate disagreements over policy. Making that kind of separation takes time for reflection and requires the passions of the moment to fade.

But, as Redford said, this is not simply a question for the judgment of history -- the problem is with us here and now, and not much has changed about the role of misogyny in Alberta politics between when she was premier and the present moment when another woman, Rachel Notley of the NDP, is at the helm.

"I don't think things have changed," Redford told CBC interviewer Mark Connelly, host of the broadcaster's Edmonton morning show. "I think the only thing that's changed is we're talking about it now."

Understandably, we've not heard much from Redford since she was in effect driven out of power by her own Progressive Conservative caucus in March 2014. As she observed, the short time she was in power was "a very hairy time in Alberta politics."

She briefly resurfaced yesterday to try to put to rest one of the controversies that dogged her short-lived government, the role she played in 2012 in selecting the legal consortium conducting the province's health care cost-recovery lawsuit against the tobacco industry. The consortium she chose -- and it seems clear Redford did the choosing -- included a law firm in which her former husband and political confidante was a partner.

On Monday, she was cleared of conflict of interest allegations by the second of two ethics inquiries. The first was conducted by Alberta's former ethics commissioner; the second, after new information came to light, by British Columbia Ethics Commissioner Paul Fraser.

"Of course my family is pleased with the results," she told Connelly yesterday. "It's something we’ve been living with now for three years, and we’re glad to have that over.

"If you enter public life, you have to have a certain understanding that you will be open to public criticism and that's entirely appropriate. It’s the to and fro, the cut and thrust of political debate." But there is little question, she argued, women politicians are held to a different standard than men. "There is a different understanding of how women conduct themselves in politics and what the public expects of women. Characteristics... that are normally considered attributes in men are not considered to be attributes in women, and are sometimes referred to in a derogatory way.

"What I think is hopeful right now is that we’re talking about it," she told her interlocutor, "that you’re asking those questions, and that there are people thinking about it." Having the discussion in a broader way "outside of the heat of the political debate... is important."

Certainly, Redford, by all accounts a brilliant person, offered an appealing and persuasive new face to Albertans at the start of her run toward power in 2011. 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 socially progressive, moderately economically conservative centre.

Alas, once her first government was safely elected in 2012, Redford turned from the progressive policies that attracted so many of her supporters, and, worse, became mired in a series of ethical controversies that included not just the so-called "Tobaccogate" affair, but also inexplicable schemes like the fakes-on-a-plane passenger-booking scam, excessive spending on travel and the mad decision to secretly build a $2-million private "Sky Palace" residence for her and her daughter atop a government building.

Given all that, I don’t know if history will be kinder to Redford's government than commentators were at the time she was in office; it is too soon for that assessment.

It's not too soon, though, to take her advice to do more than just talk about the deplorable treatment of women in politics by certain actors in Alberta.

Premier Notley's NDP Government will do just that at 10 a.m. today, when Status of Women Minister Stephanie McLean launches a series of new videos and a second #ReadyForHer tour designed to encourage more women to run for municipal councils and school boards in Alberta's municipal elections this October.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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