EDMONTON - Alberta Premier Alison Redford, hounded for weeks to repay the $45,000 bill for a lavish South Africa trip, relented Wednesday, saying the issue is now impeding the work of her government.
"This afternoon I've informed my caucus, my cabinet and my party that I've personally paid for the costs associated with the recent South Africa trip," Redford said in a hastily called news conference.
"I want to sincerely apologize to Albertans for these costs. And I've put in place measures to make sure that this never happens again.
"As we've seen over the past couple of weeks, this issue has been a distraction from the important work that Albertans elected us to do and that we promised Albertans that we would do. My hope is that we can now get back to the work."
The premier declined to take questions.
The issue began last December, when Redford was invited to join Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other Canadian leaders on a federal flight to South Africa for Mandela's funeral.
Redford had, before entering politics, worked with Mandela to implement democratic reforms in South Africa.
Redford filed $45,000 in expenses, which included $15,000 for taking the government plane to Ottawa in order to catch the Harper flight, plus first-class air tickets to and from South Africa for her aide, Brad Stables, who was not allowed on Harper's plane.
In contrast, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil, who did not take an aide along, filed expenses under $1,000 for his trip to the funeral.
Other commercial flights were available that day but Redford's staff said they feared the plane might get held up for de-icing in — 3 C weather in Toronto. And rather than take Harper's flight back, Redford also booked a $10,000 first-class air ticket in order to come home earlier for the swearing-in of her revamped cabinet.
When the true costs surfaced weeks ago, Redford blamed her staff for not following the rules, then accepted the blame, but refused to pay the money back. She said she was on government business.
The trip has become a symbol of what critics call Redford's extravagant waste of taxpayers' money and of her own sense of entitlement, with letter writers and cartoonists lampooning her as "Princess Alison."
On Wednesday, some opposition leaders said Redford was paying back the money not out of sincerity but out of political calculation. There are reports some of her MLAs are preparing to cross the floor to sit as independents.
"Alison Redford has not done the right thing because she thought it was the right thing to do," said NDP Leader Brian Mason.
"She did it because she was forced to politically. The pressure has been mounting on her in a way that's very intense, including from her own caucus, her own cabinet colleagues and from her own political party.
"But as is very much the pattern with this premier, when an error is made, the apology comes too late. It's too little, too late every time."
Liberal Leader Raj Sherman agreed.
"I believe she's doing this to save the hide of her government," said Sherman.
However, Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith gave Redford credit for doing the right thing.
"She has apologized and we accept her apology," Smith said in a statement. "I think all Albertans will be relieved that we can put this issue behind us."
In recent weeks, Redford's government has been beset by regular revelations of other abuse of the government planes.
Last week, Redford admitted she used the planes to fly her daughter's friends around, and repaid the equivalent air fares of $3,100.
There was a trip back on a government plane from a vacation in Palm Springs and a trip to Vancouver for a family funeral.
This week has brought fresh revelations that at times Redford has flown on her own government plane while another half-empty government plane of other Progressive Conservative MLAs took off around the same time to the same destination.
On Tuesday, the Wildrose revealed that Redford and two other ministers used the government plane to fly to Grande Prairie for a party fundraising dinner in 2012.
Health Minister Fred Horne, who was on the flight, said the party fundraiser coincided with a government announcement on a hospital expansion, but could provide no evidence any news conference took place.
The issue has hammered Redford's Tories in the polls, including one for Postmedia that suggested Redford's personal popularity has plummeted to 20 per cent, with the party badly trailing the opposition Wildrose.
Critics say the issue has struck a chord with everyday Albertans because Redford has made the mantra of her government "living within our means."
To that end, she has negotiated wage freeze deals with doctors and teachers and passed a law last year that would ultimately order the largest union, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, to accept a similar austere contract.
That law has now been put on hold by a judge who says the union has made a case that it amounts to bad faith bargaining.
There have been cuts to post-secondary schools and social programs. Overall spending in the current budget won't match the five per cent baseline of population plus inflation growth.
However, Redford's office, in the new budget, gave itself a 9.4 per cent increase to, among other things, hire more people to write letters for her.
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