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United Conservative Party Leader Danielle Smith speaks following the debate in Edmonton on May 18.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Danielle Smith can make the claim that she came out ahead in the leaders’ debate, by the simple calculation that she kept her cool and stuck to her key messages, and NDP Leader Rachel Notley didn’t deliver a knockout line.

But with Thursday’s election debate now in the rear-view mirror, Albertans can return to the consequential news that came out just hours before – the release of the Alberta Ethics Commissioner’s investigation into political interference, which lays out how Ms. Smith contravened the province’s Conflicts of Interest Act.

Specifically it shows that Ms. Smith, with her long experience in politics and public life, should have known better.

It’s baffling, but the UCP Leader and Premier agreed in January to speak to well-known Calgary street preacher Artur Pawlowski, even as he faced criminal charges. That phone call – which Mr. Pawlowski recorded and posted online – should have ended the minute he started talking about his case, wrote Alberta Ethics Commissioner Marguerite Trussler in her report this week.

Instead, a few hours later, the Premier called her Justice Minister, Tyler Shandro – on a Friday evening while Mr. Shandro was on vacation with his family – to press the case of Mr. Pawlowski. Realizing the world was watching, the pastor had encouraged truckers to keep blocking a Canada-U.S. border crossing to protest against COVID-19 restrictions last year. This month, Mr. Pawlowski was found guilty of mischief and breaching a release order.

Ms. Smith is not a lawyer. But Ms. Trussler points out in the report that the Premier had briefings on prosecutorial independence, as well as knowledge of the reasons why the SNC-Lavalin case was so troubling.

In other words, the Premier should have known that her conversation with Mr. Shandro was an improper attempt to influence the independence of the legal system.

The parallels to the federal Liberal scandal four years ago are pretty clear. As a political commentator and pundit, Ms. Smith wrote and spoke in 2019 about the attempts by the Prime Minister’s Office to press Jody Wilson-Raybould, when she was justice minister, to intervene in the corruption and fraud prosecution of Montreal engineering and construction giant SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. Ms. Wilson-Raybould would not ask federal prosecutors to make a deal with the company headquartered in Justin Trudeau’s home turf in Montreal.

Eventually, the federal Ethics Commissioner determined that Mr. Trudeau’s actions were meant to further the private interests of SNC-Lavalin, a breach of the federal Conflict of Interest Act.

This week, Ms. Trussler wrote: “Just as was the case with Prime Minister Trudeau in the SNC-Lavalin case, Premier Smith was the only person who, by virtue of her position, could clearly exert influence over the Attorney-General and had the power to remove Minister Shandro from his position.”

In that vein, you have to wonder about the working relationship between Ms. Smith and Mr. Shandro these days. The Justice Minister described the Premier as “passive/aggressive” throughout the January phone call, according to Ms. Trussler’s report.

“She asked him specifically if there was anything he could do about Mr. Pawlowski’s case. She wanted him to make it go away, although she did not direct him to do so. She was concerned about a press conference that Mr. Pawlowski said he was going to have and how bad the optics would be for the party.”

Why did Ms. Smith use her time and political capital, and test the province’s ethics laws, for Mr. Pawlowski – who protested outside of the current Health Minister’s home during the pandemic, and said in 2013 that the floods that swept Southern Alberta were a result of Jesus weeping for the “perversions of homosexuality.”

Yes, Ms. Smith – as she noted this week – has always stated that she wanted to find a path of amnesty for those charged with non-violent COVID-related offences and violations during the pandemic. This is in many ways her home turf.

But is advocating for the likes of Artur Pawlowski truly what it takes to hold a big-tent conservative party together in 2023?

Ms. Smith put out a statement saying she was gratified to read the Ethics Commissioner’s findings confirming that no one from her office tried to contact any Crown prosecutors regarding any COVID prosecutions. There is no evidence that the Premier ever spoke to any Crown prosecutor, the report states. “This confirms that the CBC and NDP have repeatedly lied to Albertans for months with false accusations stating that my office and I had done so,” she said.

The CBC, however, is standing by its story. A full airing of that specific accusation might only come if and when Ms. Smith pursues legal action after the election, which she says she’s considering.

In any case, that is only a portion of the larger story about political interference, that was confused by Ms. Smith herself. She said several times to many people, including media, that she had spoken to Crown prosecutors about COVID cases. She later explained that she had used imprecise language and had meant that she spoke to Mr. Shandro and his staff.

Ms. Smith can point to the fact that – perhaps unlike SNC Lavalin, where a number of PMO staffers pressed their case to Ms. Wilson-Raybould – she did back off when Mr. Shandro told her there was nothing that could be done. But it took Mr. Shandro standing “his ground in defending the independence of the Crown Prosecution Service and its right to be free from political interference.” What if it had been a weaker politician in his place?

Since winning the UCP leadership last October, Ms. Smith has asked not to be judged against every comment she made while working in radio and in media. But even the province’s Ethics Commissioner now says those past words can’t all be ignored.

Ms. Trussler declined to sanction the Premier at this juncture, which reminds me of the last line in a piece Ms. Smith wrote about the SNC Lavalin case in 2019: “The problem is, without consequences, you can be sure it will happen again.”

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