Alberta’s United Conservative Party has a new leader and the province will soon have a new premier: Danielle Smith, the former Wildrose Party leader who spent years as a talk-radio host before her political comeback.
The leadership change was prompted by outgoing Premier Jason Kenney’s decision to step down. In May, after two years of open dissent from his caucus over COVID restrictions, Mr. Kenney faced a leadership review, where 51.4 per cent of UCP members who voted expressed confidence in his leadership. Shortly after the vote, Mr. Kenney conceded that such a slim victory was not enough to hold on to power and announced he would resign.
Ms. Smith, who is expected to be sworn in as premier in the coming days, beat out six other candidates, including former UCP finance minister Travis Toews and Brian Jean, a onetime Wildrose leader who co-founded the UCP with Mr. Kenney. Here’s what to know about Ms. Smith’s political background and campaign promises.
What is Ms. Smith’s political background?
Danielle Smith became the leader of the Wildrose Party in 2009. She lost the 2012 election as leader despite being favoured to win, a loss she blamed on controversial comments by two of her candidates and strategic voting. Then in 2014, as the leader of the Official Opposition, Ms. Smith and eight other Wildrose MLAs defected to the governing Progressive Conservatives led by Jim Prentice. At the time, Ms. Smith said the defection was necessary after Wildrose members rejected her attempts to create a fiscally conservative and socially mainstream party.
The floor crossing shocked and angered supporters and less than a year later, Ms. Smith lost her riding nomination for the Progressive Conservatives ahead of the 2015 election. During a rally this summer, Ms. Smith said that crossing party lines was a mistake. “I have done my part to cause many of you to lose trust in politicians and in government. I let you down in 2014, I know that. It was a mistake. Everyone knows that,” she said.
After a seven-year hiatus, Ms. Smith announced in April, 2022, that she was returning to provincial politics and announced her bid for UCP leader.
What are Ms. Smith’s proposed policies?
Ms. Smith ran on a campaign promising to restructure the province’s centralized health care authority and to ensure there were no more COVID-19 lockdowns. Her most prominent and controversial policy, however, is the Alberta sovereignty act.
Alberta sovereignty act
Ms. Smith says her proposal would allow the Alberta legislature to refuse enforcement of specific federal laws or court decisions deemed against the province’s interests. The proposal has been criticized as unconstitutional and a veiled attempt at separation that will destabilize the Alberta economy.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail’s Kelly Cryderman, Ms. Smith argued that the act will help fix the country by ensuring provincial rights are upheld. “The term sovereignty has been used in a number of different applications without causing the mass freak-out that we’ve seen,” Ms. Smith said. By mid-November, Ms. Smith plans to introduce the sovereignty act in the legislature.
Mr. Kenney has vowed to vote against the act and said the proposal is “catastrophically stupid” and a “cockamamie idea that was first floated by a far-right special interest group.” Most of the other UCP leadership candidates, including Mr. Toews and Leela Aheer, have vowed to never support it.
Ms. Smith pledged to hire a new CEO of Alberta Health Services and replace its entire board, which was appointed under the UCP government, with an interim health commissioner who would report directly to her. She has also promised to hire an independent organization within 90 days in office to provide recommendations on how to decentralize control of health care delivery.
Ms. Smith has argued that the executive management of AHS failed Albertans during the pandemic by not developing adequate surge capacity and that the issue was compounded when staff were lost because of the health authority’s mandatory COVID vaccine policy.
Another key pillar of Ms. Smith’s campaign has been a commitment to no more lockdowns and a pledge to amend Alberta’s Human Rights Act to ban what she called discrimination based on medical decisions, a reference to vaccine mandates. During an online roundtable hosted by the group Families for Choice in December, 2021, Ms. Smith said she went to the United States in September of that year to get the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine to comply with Alberta’s passport system, explaining that she was not comfortable with the mRNA shots from Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna.
Ms. Smith said she would consider directing RCMP to not enforce the federal government’s gun laws and said she supported Alberta Justice Minister Tyler Shandro’s decision to oppose Ottawa’s firearms buyback program. She said the buyback program is a “misguided and unconstitutional federal policy.”
On whether Alberta should bring in its own provincial police force, Ms. Smith said her goal is better policing and that systemic change is needed to help police deal with a high number of mental health and addiction cases.
When will the next Alberta election be?
Ms. Smith pledged to not call a snap election if she won the leadership race and instead would seek a seat in Alberta’s legislature through a by-election in a rural riding. She told reporters this week that she would adhere to Alberta’s schedule for a general election next May, arguing that the UCP still has a mandate to implement her proposed changes.
Two days after winning the UCP leadership race, Ms. Smith, who currently does not have a seat in the provincial legislature, said she would run in a by-election in Medicine Hat. “I hope this sends a signal, not only to the residents of Brooks-Medicine Hat, but to residents of all rural Alberta, that their voice will be heard, it will be prominent, and it will be respected,” she said, standing alongside Michaela Frey, who stepped down as the riding’s MLA to make way for the new leader.
Ms. Smith said several UCP members of the legislative assembly have “offered” to give up their seats so she can run in one of their ridings. The urban riding of Calgary-Elbow, last occupied by former UCP MLA Doug Schweitzer, is vacant, but Ms. Smith said she will not run there because she is from rural Alberta.
On the fate of the party in the next general election, The Globe’s Kelly Cryderman writes that “the UCP will have an easier road in rural parts of the province but Edmonton is likely to be won by the NDP, again.”
With reports from Carrie Tait, Alana Smith, Kelly Cryderman, Emma Graney and The Canadian Press