Alberta Premier Alison Redford is fighting to stay on as leader of the province's Progressive Conservative party, as lingering questions over her travel expenses spark dissent in her caucus – and the departure of a former minister from government benches.
Simmering unrest boiled over Thursday with the exit of disgruntled MLA Len Webber, who pulled no punches in saying the Premier was a bully prone to fits of rage who has the province headed in the wrong direction.
A Tory caucus meeting followed, one Ms. Redford didn't take part in. She later skipped Question Period and a planned news conference with two other premiers, referring questions to her deputy premier. The opposition warned caucus troubles are leaving government paralyzed.
It was just three years ago that a caucus divide forced out her predecessor, Ed Stelmach. Nonetheless, the party rallied around the Premier, presenting a united face.
"This is just another day in the life, you know?" Deputy Premier Dave Hancock said. "The reality is parties and governments go through periods of time, go through challenges, and in the midterm there is always the question about what tomorrow looks like." Asked, however, if he could unequivocally rule out other MLAs leaving caucus in the coming days, he said he could not.
The catalyst for much of the furor is a $45,000 trip to South Africa for Ms. Redford and an aide to attend Nelson Mandela's funeral. The costs were high because she took a government plane to meet up with Stephen Harper's own plane, flew her aide separately and then flew back early, rather than travelling with Mr. Harper.
The Premier at first defended the expenses, but the issue has hung over her and the party. On Wednesday evening, she apologized and said she paid back the $45,000, saying she wanted to get back to work. She has also faced questions about use of government planes for personal or party business.
Altogether it wasn't enough for Mr. Webber, who is campaigning for a nomination to jump to federal politics. "It's like a child getting caught with their hand in the cookie jar," he told reporters of the repayment. Mr. Webber, who was a minister in Mr. Stelmach's government but not under Ms. Redford, said he believes the current premier disrespects MLAs and staff.
"I've seen abuse first-hand, not only to me but to many others as well. Fits of rage, temper tantrums. It's something I cannot support," Mr. Webber said. With Ms. Redford as Premier, "I think that Albertans will be in trouble, I think that the party will be in trouble as well," he said.
Between 20 and 25 MLAs are considering leaving, he claimed, a figure that would cost Ms. Redford her majority.
After the comments, however, there were no defections. "You folks get the privilege of dealing with conjecture and rumour. I have work to do," Infrastructure Minister Ric McIver said when asked about Mr. Webber. Mr. Hancock said Mr. Webber was a "very sad man" upset about not being in cabinet.
"We had a good constructive caucus meeting and that's all I'm going to say," added Thomas Lukaszuk, the Minister of Jobs, Skills Training and Labour and a former deputy premier. "I've been a PC member 13 years as of yesterday and I plan on being one going ahead as well."
Liberal Leader Raj Sherman – who once made his own high-profile exit from the PC caucus – said the "problem isn't just Alison Redford. It's the whole PC party itself." NDP Leader Brian Mason said "the government is essentially paralyzed" by the caucus battle.
Official Opposition Leader Danielle Smith, of the right-leaning Wildrose Party, said her party had no "substantive" discussions with PCs looking to cross the floor amid the uproar. "The PCs always rally around their own and it looks like they've emerged from their caucus meeting united today. And I can only hope the Premier has learned a lesson from this – that she can't abuse taxpayers' dollars and she has to own up immediately when she does something wrong and she has to take responsibility for it."
With files from The Canadian Press