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Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith pictured in a grassy field in Stettler Alberta on Friday April 13, 2012. (Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail./Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith pictured in a grassy field in Stettler Alberta on Friday April 13, 2012. (Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail./Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)

Danielle Smith: Is she Alberta's Sarah Palin, or the future of Canada? Add to ...

<p> The genius of the party that Peter Lougheed built in the 1960s was to contain within its walls the entire Alberta conservative movement, even when Reform and the federal Conservatives did battle until the latter’s crushing defeat in the wake of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1993. </p> <p> The uneasy provincial union of right and far right endured for nearly another two decades, but started to crumble in 2009 when Mr. Stelmach moved the PCs sharply to the side of progressivism and bigger government. </p> <p> Ms. Smith quit the party that year and won the Wildrose leadership in the fall. If the PCs could wish or pray just one defector back into the fold, it would be her. Less than three years after Smith made her move, the changes on the ground are so unprecedented they almost defy belief. A few days ago, I took my dog for an evening walk and as soon as I stepped out the door, I spotted a line of cars – big expensive ones and little expensive ones – lining both sides of the street for two blocks. </p> <p> The attraction, it turned out, was a fundraiser being held in a big house for a Wildrose candidate named James Cole. Hundreds of people attended. Party noise gusted out every time the door opened. I stood there with our little pooch, probably gaping as I watched Alberta’s political ground shift. </p> <p> Mr. Cole is running against Alison Redford in Calgary-Elbow. Until very recently, nearly all those people with chequebooks in hand would have been going to an event for the Premier. </p> <p> The leaders’ debate that was held on Thursday was broadcast nationally, bringing Ms. Smith into the public eye along with Ms. Redford, the New Democrats’ Brian Mason and Raj Sherman of the Liberals. Opinions vary, of course, but for many undecided voters giving her a serious look for the first time, she appeared confident, accessible and forthright in her views as she was being hammered by the others. </p> <p> Of course, she’d trained heavily and was well scripted. In one way or another, Ms. Smith has been preparing for this moment her entire life. </p> <p> <b>PIONEER ROOTS</b> </p> <p> Her critics like to characterize her as Alberta’s version of Sarah Palin, but Danielle Smith is no backwoods Barbie. Nor can she see Russia from her house, which is 107 years old and located in High River, a bedroom community southeast of Calgary, where she is running against a respected PC named John Barlow, publisher of the local paper. However, she has a Russian connection in that her great-grandfather came to Canada from Ukraine in 1915. To make his job easier, the immigration officer transformed Philipus Kolodnicki into Philip Smith. </p> <p> An overachiever known for working hard, Ms. Smith says she is following in the footsteps of some strong women who came before her, such as her maternal great-grandmother. Ethel Parken was a rural teacher and not above doing whatever had to be done, including shovelling coal to heat the schoolhouse. </p> <p> Relatives say the Wildrose leader has many pioneer-like qualities, such as resilience and persistence, along with the belief that change comes only from hard work, and hurdles are there to be overcome. </p> <p> She also inherited much of her drive from her parents. Mother Sharon raised five children while studying first for a management certificate and later a commerce degree. She worked evenings at the post office while her husband, Doug, worked at Firestone until he, too, had a commerce degree. They both turned to jobs in the oil patch. Their tenacity wasn’t lost on their daughter. </p> <p> “The family doesn’t take anything for granted,” says Elaine Smith, Sharon’s cousin. “They know the hard work of a rural life as well as a city one.” </p> <p> Danielle’s first job was babysitting her younger siblings, Amber, Troy and Shane, sometimes with her older brother, Doug Jr., looking on. Then she moved to looking after neighbourhood kids. At 15 she graduated to better pay and work at the local bingo hall. </p> <p> Her first interest in politics came at an early age, but from a surprising source. Inspired by her Grade 8 social science teacher, she came home extolling the virtues of communism. </p> <p> Her father reminded his kids that Stalin was responsible for the deaths of millions of Ukrainians and that their great-grandfather was lucky to escape before his reign of terror began. Mr. Smith later had a few spirited words with the teacher, and then decided that everything should be open for discussion at the dinner table, especially politics. This was where his daughter learned the importance of free speech, and that facts were needed to win arguments. </p> <p> A recent Wildrose campaign video features her reminiscing about those lively discussions: “The more kids there are, the more kids there are to fight with.” Today, she has persuaded every sibling save one to support Wildrose. </p> <p> “I’ve got one brother I have to convince,” she says. “He has an EverGreen candidate in his riding. It’s a tough battle to get him to vote for me. The other three are very supportive.” </p> <p> She enrolled at the University of Calgary to study English and political science, and was elected president of the campus Progressive Conservatives. It was like the Smith dinner table all over again, except this time her political siblings were future federal MPs Jason Kenney and Rob Anders, Sun TV pundit Ezra Levant, and Naheed Nenshi, now Calgary’s mayor. </p> <p> University was also where she met her first husband, Sean McKinsley, a businessman who once worked as executive assistant to Mr. Kenney. The marriage ended in divorce, but the two remain cordial – Mr. McKinsley recently donated $5,000 to Wildrose. </p> <p> The U of C also offered up two high-profile political mentors: Economist Frank Atkins and political scientist Tom Flanagan would jump-start her imagination, prompting her to look beyond preconceived political notions as she explored her free-market conservative values. </p> <p> After Ms. Smith graduated, Mr. Flanagan urged her to take an internship with the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, the high-profile conservative think tank. While at a Fraser event, she met one of her heroes, Margaret Thatcher. The former British prime minister was giving a lecture while on a sales tour for her memoir, <i>Path to Power</i>. Ms. Smith recalls being captivated by the woman who inspired French president François Mitterrand to comment that she had “the eyes of Stalin, the voice of Marilyn Monroe.” </p> <p> Mrs. Thatcher also knew that the best way to get attention in a room full of politicians, usually male, was to lower her voice – a trick that Ms. Smith has used to avoid appearing too strident. </p> <p> In 1998, at 27, the future politician returned to Calgary, ready to put her conservative views into action. She became a trustee on the Calgary Board of Education, hoping to make the board more responsive to the public, especially to parents, and far less bureaucratic. </p> <p> But her conservatism clashed with the Liberal majority and hostilities ran so deep that, in August, 1999, provincial Learning Minister Lyle Oberg fired the entire board, whose own chair had described as “completely dysfunctional.” </p> <p> Today, Ms. Smith acknowledges her role in the board’s public breakdown, saying she was “more strident” and “not as open-minded.” The experience, she says, provided valuable lessons in what not to do as a politician – teaching her to listen to views she doesn’t share and to be more collegial. </p> <p> <b>CAREER IN THE MEDIA</b> </p> <p> Next, Ms. Smith caught the eye of then-Calgary Herald editor Peter Menzies, who hired her as an editorial writer. She joined an editorial board made up of men and women with strong views. </p> <p> The reigning personality was the formidable Catherine Ford, who strode into the boardroom in her impressive attire and even more impressive left-liberal intellect. I, too, was a member of the board, and Ms. Ford and I sometimes sat together as we often had similar views. Across sat the 29-year old Ms. Smith, who by then had learned to lower her voice, along with her hemline (it was the age of <i>Ally McBeal</i>), as she honed her debating skill as well as her fashion sense. </p> <p> Ms. Smith was quick with her arguments and fervent in her beliefs. There were times when she and I were so far apart on issues that we might as well have been on different planets. Some of these opinions have come back to bite her. On the first day of the campaign, Ms. Redford blasted Ms. Smith’s support for legalized prostitution in a nine-year-old column. </p> <p> “We’ve been prepared for that,” Ms. Smith assured me. “When your career has been in the public eye, you’re going to write some columns that are ultimately going to be raised and questioned. I fully expected that.” </p> <p> She has always been libertarian on moral issues; her impulse is toward personal freedom, not legislated morality. She has expressed support in the past for de-listing abortion from medicare, but now says that as long as she’s party leader, there will never be legislation on such issues. Her government wouldn’t accept referendum questions that go against settled constitutional law, she insists, but acknowledges that some of her candidates are social conservatives who feel differently. The deal within the party, she insists, is that they all agree not to legislate on those points of contention. </p> <p> “Contentious moral issues are issues that people deal with in their personal time not in their political party,” Ms. Smith said this week, under pressure from PCs trying to paint her party as extreme. “I am pro-choice and pro gay marriage, and my members of my party knew that when they elected me.” </p> <p> After six years at the Herald, Ms. Smith ventured into television, as host of the national current-affairs program, <i>Global Sunday</i>. In 2006, she married the show’s Calgary-based producer, David Moretta. </p> <p> When his wife became Wildrose leader, Mr. Moretta felt he had to leave Global Calgary, taking a national job with Sun TV. “We’ll have to talk about what he’ll do once the election is over,” says Ms. Smith. “It depends on the outcome. If I’m the opposition leader, that makes the choices easier for him. </p> <p> “If I’m premier, and I hope Albertans make that choice – we’ll have to make another choice about what his next steps will be because he won’t be able to be in the media at that point.” </p> <p> After her show was cancelled, she became a lobbyist, first with Alberta Property Rights Initiative and then with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB). But she was really biding her time, looking for the right opportunity to finally run for political office at the provincial level. </p> <p> Instead of moving further to the right with the Reform Party, she remained a committed PC supporter, secure in her belief that her views would be represented best by the legendary, decades-old government party. She finally made up her mind to run in 2008, but the riding she eyed in Calgary-North Hill didn’t materialize. Instead, it was Alison Redford who finally won her first provincial election as the MLA in Calgary-Currie, after which she became justice minister under Premier Ed Stelmach. </p> <p> Now she’s finally going to have her name on a provincial ballot – but as leader of a party that was created only weeks before Mr. Stelmach won a routine majority on March 3, 2008. </p> <p> In an early warning sign that the public was finally ready to consider an alternative on the right, Wildrose captured seven per cent of the vote. That didn’t translate into a seat, but the party’s founders were encouraged – and they had their eye on Ms. Smith. </p> <p> Link Byfield, scion of the conservative Alberta Report publisher, Ted Byfield, was an enthusiastic Wildroser and tried to convince her to leave the PCs and run for the party leadership. She declined. </p> <p> “I thought the PCs could be changed from within. I’d try to change it from inside like the Klein era deep-six did,” she explains, referring to a group of fiscally conservative MLAs who nudged then-premier Ralph Klein toward balanced budgets in the early 1990s. </p> <p> That group included Mr. Stelmach who, once he replaced Mr. Klein, broke decisively with that tradition. After the economy fell off the rails in 2009, he presided over a return to deficits, the first the province had seen in 15 years. That, combined with his drive for higher oil and gas royalties – a policy that came into effect just as prices plunged – lead Ms. Smith to reconsider her loyalty. </p> <p> She was also concerned about her party’s attitude toward property rights, reflected in government bills that seemed to take little account of strong feeling about ownership in rural Alberta. </p> <p> “I was at the CFIB at the time, and a colleague and I were sending excerpts of (NDP leader) Brian Mason’s speeches about how important property rights were,” she says. “What a topsy-turvy time when the NDP are defending landowner rights.” </p> <p> Ms. Smith’s “breaking point” with the party was its 2008 budget of double-digit spending increases along with a big dip into provincial savings to keep deficits low – artificially so, in her view. </p> <p> She says she decided to leave after a meeting with PC MLA Rob Anderson in which he related how 55 members of Mr. Stelmach’s caucus had supported a particular policy position. Their unified voice was cut down when the premier overrode their decision. </p> <p> “One more voice in that environment isn’t going to make a difference,” says Ms. Smith. “There’s a problem in governance.” </p> <p> Then she lists her grievances: “Lack of respect for property rights; out of control spending; lack of respect for individually elected members to actually stand up and represent their constituents. </p> <p> “That’s when I realized that I hadn’t left the PCs. They’d left me.” </p> <p> She hadn’t turned 40 when she took the Wildrose helm in September, 2009. The party had only one member, Paul Hinman, the man who had stepped down as leader. She didn’t have a seat in the legislature, but she persuaded three PCs to cross the floor: first Mr. Anderson and former solicitor-general Heather Forsyth, then ex-municipal minister Guy Boutilier. </p> <p> The floor-crossings were a sensation; nothing like it had happened since the PCs were first elected in 1971. The legislature, dominated by a giant majority, only saw the occasional trickle of movement in the government’s direction. </p> <p> <b>WILDROSE’S DREAM TEAM</b> </p> <p> Today the story is much different – the Leader is battle-ready. When Ms. Redford criticized her lack of experience during the debate Thursday night, she shot back: “I don’t have experience running deficits, I don’t have experience bullying doctors and I don’t have experience voting myself a 30-per-cent pay raise.” </p> <p> She was referring to hot-button issues of the campaign: the PCs’ having booked a deficit for the fifth straight year; evidence in a report that doctors were bullied when they tried to advocate for patients; and members of the legislature being paid $1,000 a month for being on a committee that hadn’t met for three years. </p> <p> The Premier’s clumsy handing of the pay issue – first saying she would wait for a report, then ordering the members to return some of the money, finally commanding them to give it all back – probably contributed more than anything else to the PC plunge in the polls. Like many smaller issues involving money, it became a poisonous symbol of many other grievances. </p> <p> Wildrose members of the committee sided with the angels and gave back their money, as did the Liberals’ Mr. Sherman, who quickly wrote a cheque for $43,000. But the PC contingent has yet to say whether it has complied with its leader’s order. Because pay is controlled by the legislature as a whole, she has no formal power to compel them. </p> <p> The Wildrose campaign team is led by conservative icons: The manager is her U of C mentor, Tom Flanagan, who filled the same role for another former student, Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Alongside him is businessman Cliff Fryers, Preston Manning’s former chief of staff and campaign chief for more than a decade. </p> <p> For more than a year, Wildrose has shown signs of becoming a serious threat. The party raised $2.7-million in 2011, well behind the PCs’ $4.3-million, but enough to run a campaign-long advertising blitz. </p> <p> Months ago, long before the election call came, the campaign team took Ms. Smith on a mini-election blitz, having compiled all kinds of expected, unexpected and what-ifs for her initiation. Crossing the province for three gruelling weeks and visiting two dozen communities, she was kept far from the comfort of home to ensure that she could withstand the constant pressure and exhaustion that comes with the real thing. </p> <p> To observers who saw what was going on, it was a clear sign that Wildrose would be well organized and tough when the time came. Her performance in the polls and the debate shows a contender who doesn’t fluster and makes her points with cool authority. </p> <p> Her platform distinguishes her sharply from Ms. Redford and the PCs: She calls for balancing the budget quickly, paying all Albertans an annual $300 energy dividend (instantly dubbed “Dani Bucks”) after surpluses return; allowing citizen-driven referendums and recall of politicians, creating a “Family Pack” of direct benefit to young families, and much else. </p> <p> That sounds like the Reform Party to many Albertans – and it should. Ms. Smith makes no secret of her affection for Preston Manning’s movement and its modern heir, the Harper government. </p> <p> And the remaining PCs, some of whom are more conservative than they’re allowed to admit, privately nod their heads. </p> <p> This could account for why the spurned PCs are making every effort to build Ms. Smith’s stereotype as a “Little Alberta” politician – someone who would take the province back to earlier times, when a woman’s only door to the government party was through the Queen Bee section of the Social Credit newsletter. It consisted entirely of recipes. </p> <p> “Danielle has no legislative experience, no administrative experience and no background in governing experience,” contends Ron Ghitter, the former PC senator and Lougheed-era MLA. “To run Alberta over to that level of inexperience with totally unknown people is a high-risk situation. I think it would be a backward step for Alberta.” </p> <p> The brawl between the progressive form of conservatism and the reform brand has not gone unnoticed by others in the Alberta legislature. </p> <p> “Wildrose people are Conservatives in a hurry,” says New Democrat member Rachel Notley, adding yet again that “this is a family fight between the PCs and the Wildrose.” </p> <p> During the second week of the campaign, things got ugly when Amanda Wilkie, a young staffer in Ms. Redford’s Calgary office put up a tweet saying: “If @ElectDanielle likes young and growing families so much, why doesn’t she have children of her own? #wrp family pack = insincere.” </p> <p> In the most foolish way possible, she was questioning Ms. Smith’s dedication to her proposed tax breaks for families, and the public explosion was immediate and very damaging to her own leader. </p> <p> Ms. Smith responded with a cool, brief statement. She and her husband had wanted to have children but couldn’t even after consulting a fertility clinic. The fallout immediately resulted in Ms. Wilkie’s resignation, as well as a public apology and a personal phone call to Ms. Smith from Ms. Redford. Later polls suggested a quick swing of votes to Wildrose. </p> <p> While some questioned whether Ms. Smith had used the incident for political advantage, I know that’s not true. After we’d both left the Herald, we met by chance one day and she told me, with tears in her eyes, that she and her husband were hoping for a baby. </p> <p> In past generations, the fact that women not only bore the children but also raised them, contributed strongly to the lack of female representation in provincial and federal politics. Now, in a most bizarre turnabout, a party leader was being politically maligned precisely because she did not have children. </p> <p> “I was hoping gender would be a non-factor,” Ms. Smith told me. “It’s actually turned out to be more of a factor than I expected. You have two fairly well-matched leaders. I hoped that would bring a more neutralizing factor.” </p> <p> “Some stories that get written about women in leadership positions wouldn’t get written about men,” she continued. “There’s a little bit of learning going on here on how to cover the race where two women lead the two top parties.” </p> <p> Ms. Notley wishes there was more discussion on issues of concern to women rather than the fact that Ms. Smith and Ms. Redford are women. “I want to reach a place where the gender of the politician is less relevant than the policies,” she says. </p> <p> <b>THE ‘BOOB BUS’</b> </p> <p> With Mr. Flanagan and Mr. Fryers calling the shots in the Wildrose planning room, everything is so tightly controlled that barely a hiccup is allowed to pass the lips of the campaigners. </p> <p> But sometimes, campaigns need luck as well as planning. For all the preparation, none of Ms. Smith’s senior advisers noticed that on the big campaign bus, the photo of their leader’s head and torso was placed directly over the wheels. The visual impact was immediate – and hilarious. When Jay Leno showed the photo on his weekly headlines spot, identifying Smith only as a Canadian politician running for office, it got the biggest laugh of the night from the audience. </p> <p> Ms. Smith was said to be personally embarrassed, but in public she just laughed off the episode, sticking as always to her script. The bus went in for a makeover, and the campaign began with such high profile that some people thought the bus blunder was a stunt. </p> <p> To people outside Alberta, Smith is eager to say she’s not about to hunker down and fight with the rest of Canada, despite the PCs’ implication that she’ll replay the energy wars of earlier days. </p> <p> “Part of what’s happened over the last couple of decades is that there’s a perception Alberta is not as interested in reaching out to our provincial neighbours,” she says, citing the time when Mr. Klein “cut out of the first ministers meeting and went to gamble. Everyone had a hoot about it. Yet the relationship with our provincial counterparts was not on a good level and did not improve with Mr. Stelmach.” </p> <p> “Both the PC leader and I share the view that Alberta is going to be an important player in Confederation,” she continues. “We already are an energy superpower. We have to start acting like it.” </p> <p> Ms. Smith says the premier will have a vital role in communicating how much good work the province is doing in developing resources in an environmentally sustainable way. </p> <p> “I think that is a role for the provincial premier as the spokesperson for Alberta, and Albertans as the owner of that resource, to make that case in Alberta to Albertans and across the country to our Canadian neighbours and internationally,” she continues. “That is one of the top priorities for the provincial premier. I don’t think [she and Ms. Redford]are that different in that regard.” </p> <p> Ms. Smith also says that the province has “a huge opportunity now that we’ve got an Albertan in the Prime Minister’s Office and in a majority position.” </p> <p> A new partnership between Ottawa and the province has already begun, especially in such areas as streamlining regulatory approvals “This is an historic opportunity for Ottawa and Alberta to be in alignment in a way that they probably haven’t been in decades,” Ms. Smith adds. </p> <p> Yet while she sees the federal bond between Ottawa and Alberta as much more collegial, she can’t say the same for two other provinces. </p> <p> “The relationship that is more problematic is that with Quebec and Ontario,” she says. “The fact is that we have two premiers [Dalton McGuinty and Jean Charest]that have expressed open hostility with the development of our oil sands, even though both provinces benefit greatly from its development through transfer payments and directly through jobs.” </p> <p> Ms. Smith knows her numbers and is quick to cite the thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue that Quebeckers enjoy thanks to the oil sands. She wants that knowledge communicated across the country and will make and take the opportunities to do it herself. </p> <p> That’s because she sees Alberta entering into a new leadership role within Canada. </p> <p> “I think that is part of what Albertans are thirsting for,” she continues. “We’re leaders in the business community and we’re leaders in the non-profit sector. Our government is frankly failing us by being pretty mediocre.” </p> <p> If she is premier, Ms. Smith insists, the province will once again lead the country on the fiscal front. She would endorse projects that would stimulate both the provincial and national economies. Too often, she suggests, the province has taken a more isolationist role to protect its interests. </p> <p> “Maybe it goes back to the National Energy Program,” she posits, bringing up the Pierre Elliott Trudeau bogey man that still prevents old-school Albertans from ever seriously considering the provincial Liberals as an option. “It’s almost like Albertans decided to keep their heads down and not draw any attention from eastern Canada out of fear that someone might want to impose another NEP on us. It’s 30 years later and we’re in a completely different position now.” </p> <p> “Albertans are ready to take on that leadership role knowing that Canada is an energy superpower,” she adds. “And a lot of the reason for that is Alberta and the oil sands.” </p> <p> Mr. Ghitter, for one, doesn’t think Ms. Smith is ready for that role. “In a general sense, I take the view that to turn Alberta over to a totally inexperienced, right-wing, ideological government would be a regressive step,” he says. “Alberta is the envy of Canada and likely North America. This prehistoric approach would be a negative factor for Alberta. </p> <p> Mr. Sherman, the Edmonton emergency-room doctor kicked out of the PC caucus by Mr. Stelmach for criticizing the government’s health-care policies, sat as an independent before becoming the Liberal leader. He likes Ms. Smith and believes he could work with her if Wildrose manages to form a minority government. That’s because only the Liberals, he says, “will keep alive the values that will, without question, suffer so badly under the Wildrose Party.” </p> <p> “With respect to Danielle as a leader, she’s a nice person,” he says and then adds firmly, “Danielle and I both agree on this point: the corrupt and incompetent Redford PCs have to go.” </p> <p> Mr. Sherman feels he could work with Smith “on issues of common interest,” yet also asserts that: “Danielle would take us further right. She’s honest about being right wing. She would move us back to the 1950s and 1960s.” </p> <p> Whatever happens April 23, the split in Alberta’s conservative movement is likely to last for years before it somehow reunites under the same party umbrella. But conservatives in Alberta enjoy the luxury of slugging out their family quarrel, because no Jean Chrétien lurks with an opposition party strong enough to pounce. </p> <p> <i>Sydney Sharpe is the Calgary-based author of seven books, including Storming Babylon: Preston Manning and the Rise of the Reform Party (co-authored); and The Gilded Ghetto: Women and Political Power in Canada.</i> </p>
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