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Danielle Smith’s serious unseriousness made her premier

By Logan Jaspers, October 25 2022

To give credit where it’s due, Danielle Smith’s victory in the United Conservative Party (UCP) leadership race is a remarkable comeback. 

As a reminder, our new premier led the Wildrose Party into the 2012 provincial election, an election for which polling said the Wildrose would comfortably win. But they didn’t and two years later, she and most of the Wildrose caucus defected to the Progressive Conservatives. This didn’t last though — she lost the nomination race for her district and left politics. 

For most, these events would have been the final chapter of their career in public service. Indeed, Smith went into radio and Alberta went on without her. But, when Jason Kenney’s approval rating tumbled, she saw an opportunity. A decade after seizing defeat from the jaws of victory, she’s finally premier.

However, her competition en route wasn’t exactly impressive. In second place was Travis Toews, Alberta’s Jeb Bush — a boring, establishment politician devoid of charisma and authenticity. It didn’t help that as finance minister, he carried the Kenney premiership’s baggage by association. 

One moment that captured the mood of Albertan conservatism at-large was during the Western Standard’s “frontrunners” debate, where you can make out one attendee accusing Toews of jailing pastors, likely referring to the arrest of pastors James Coates and Artur Patkowski for violating lockdown restrictions.  As the dictionary definition of milquetoast, Toews was never right to represent that rage, but as a key cabinet minister of a government that jailed holy men, the people who made Smith premier view Toews as an enemy. His campaign was never going to succeed in this environment.

By contrast, I expected, earlier this summer, that Brian Jean was an early favourite to become premier. He had positioned himself as Kenney’s natural alternative by criticizing him from the right for months, criticism that was materially vindicated when he won the by-election to Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche. 

It’s true that Jean’s style of populism had a constituency — but Jean himself didn’t. Despite pitting himself as the rugged, rural right-wing populist opposition to Kenney, Jean ran an anemic, wonkish campaign that turned off the voters he’d been courting. When he tried to be fiery and passionate, it came off as forced.

If Jean ever had any mojo, then Smith quickly stole it. Her making the Alberta Sovereignty Act (ASA) the central plank of her platform was short-term genius. For Albertans discontented with our relationship with the rest of Canada, it was fresh, creative, snappy and concrete — unlike Kenney’s pseudo-referendum and vague promises of standing up to Ottawa. 

Whereas Jean seemed distant and Toews was too close to Kenney, Smith’s seeming sincerity and effective communication in addition to the marquee promise of the ASA is what won her Alberta’s premiership. As her meagre 53 per cent of the vote on the sixth ballot shows, it was a divisive campaign, but she had to win enough votes and she succeeded. 

Of course, now that she has the job, governing is a different matter. Making Ottawa into a boogeyman responsible for Alberta’s woes — woes which will be magically fixed by the ASA — is unserious politics. As many more qualified scholars have pointed out, the ASA goes beyond mere unconstitutionality — it’s an attack on the rule of law itself. 

With vocal opposition to the ASA in the UCP caucus, including from most of her leadership competitors and Jason Kenney, it’s not guaranteed the provincial legislature will pass it. If it passes, it’s doomed in the courts. If by some miracle it becomes law, its passage would cause massive capital flight out of Alberta — what corporation would invest in a place that refuses to uphold the law simply because the province dislikes them?

But the UCP base wasn’t interested in a premier focused on governing. If they were, they would have chosen Rebecca Schulz, the fourth place contestant and the only serious person in the race. They wanted a champion of their anger who spoke to them concisely and earnestly. Smith’s unseriousness may seem self-evident to many, but to enough Albertans, especially in rural Alberta, she speaks genuinely about the issues pertinent to their lives. 

Though our conceptions of success inevitably differ, I want Smith to succeed — she’s my premier too, but I have no reason to think she won’t at least try to pass some version of the ASA. Though she’s already backed off on the most extreme parts of the ASA, it’s worth remembering all politicians’ chief concern is being re-elected. Straying too far from her key promises would alienate the voters who made Smith premier to begin with. Now that she’s finally accomplished what she seemed destined for in 2012, I doubt she’s eager to set off on another course of political self-destruction.

This article is a part of our Opinions section does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.

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