Few people in Alberta expected Alison Redford would win the Progressive Conservative Party leadership – and for a time, even the lawyer-turned-politician wasn't sure she had the support to make history as the province's first female Premier.
But Ms. Redford defied the party machine by appealing to centrist and red Tories, and barely three months later, the 46-year-old has already managed to inject new life into the listless Tory government, placed Alberta in the spotlight on the international stage and, in the process, became the most popular leader in a province about to head to the polls this spring.
"I think what we've been able to do is to change the tone of what government does, how it does it, how Alberta is regarded and how we feel about ourselves as Albertans," Ms. Redford said.
In a year-end interview, the rookie Premier addressed topics ranging from party renewal to health care and the oil sands. As she gears up for a provincial election, which according to her own new rules must be held between March 1 and May 31 every four years, beginning in 2012, Ms. Redford didn't shy away from addressing her critics who accuse her of being a "flip-flop" leader.
"It's been 75 days, and I'm not saying that in a defensive way," she said. "I'm really proud of what we've done, but the fact is that we've made commitments on a number of issues and are implementing them as quickly as we can."
The Tories have enjoyed 40 years in power, but the continuation of that dynasty looked uncertain under former premier Ed Stelmach, who suddenly announced his retirement in January. During the leadership contest, Ms. Redford was considered a contender, but never the front-runner.
As Premier, Ms. Redford suffered some initial missteps. She cancelled a fall sitting of the legislature and then reversed it. She was criticized for being slow to visit the United States to talk up the oil sands during the crucial Keystone XL pipeline debate, but eventually brought Alberta's pro-energy message to Toronto, Ottawa, New York and Washington.
She also forged ahead with controversial initiatives, such as tough, new drunk-driving rules, despite divisions in her own caucus and some public opposition. She said she plans to roll out legislation around environmental sustainability, but that she doesn't want to do anything that could hurt economic growth.
Chaldeans Mensah, a political scientist at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, said Ms. Redford has proven herself as a "task-oriented" Premier with a game plan who doesn't always follow the traditional Tory playbook.
"Overall, I think Alison Redford has given the Tory party a new opportunity," Prof. Mensah said. "There's a sense within the party that there's a winner at the helm – a potential winner at the helm – so it has kind of unified the party and prevented the fragmentation that began under Ed Stelmach."
A ThinkHQ poll published this month in the Calgary Herald pegged Ms. Redford's approval rating at 59 per cent, ahead of Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, who had 40-per-cent support but doesn't have a seat in the legislature. Liberal Leader Raj Sherman and New Democrat Leader Brian Mason had approval ratings of 31 per cent.
The survey found that Ms. Redford's presence has also improved Tory support to 45 per cent, up from 36 per cent before she was selected leader.
Still, Ms. Redford has not escaped condemnation – from opposition parties, pundits and even her own MLAs. She has been rebuked for failing to live up to campaign promises on fixed election dates and to order a judicial inquiry into allegations of political coercion in the health-care system.
Doreen Barrie, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, said Ms. Redford was trying to distinguish herself from the other candidates, but now the public regards her as a "flip-flop" Premier – especially on health care.
"I think it's going to damage her," Prof. Barrie said.
Ms. Redford brushes off the criticisms and insists an inquiry into health care will be held. And now she's focused on getting ready for a February session of the legislature, a Throne Speech, delivering a budget and dropping the writ.
"What we did as a party this year is what we needed to do, which is we needed to renew," Ms. Redford said. "And then as we move into the election, of course, the question will be: Is this the party that should govern?"