The United Conservative Party has won a second term in office, solidifying its standing as Alberta’s natural governing political movement, with Danielle Smith completing a remarkable comeback despite voters’ deep skepticism surrounding her leadership.
Alberta voters have long leaned toward conservative parties, and the UCP helped its case in the campaign by promising a new arena in Calgary – the key battleground of the election – and bread-and-butter pledges to lower personal income taxes and to take a harder line on the crime and public disorder issues affecting cities across the country.
But even with the win, the question Albertans are likely to ask as they wake up Tuesday morning is what kind of premier will Ms. Smith be, as she takes the lead beyond the seven months she has already governed? Is she the media personality, backed by the most right-wing elements in Alberta politics, who supported the illegal blockade in Coutts and used comparisons with the Nazis to describe Canada’s pandemic response? Or will the Premier be the more mainstream conservative version of herself presented during the election campaign?
In a speech to supporters in Calgary late Monday night, Ms. Smith said it was time to put partisanship, and personal and political attacks, in the rearview mirror. She praised NDP Leader Rachel Notley as a loyal Albertan who loves the province, despite their differences. “My goal is to serve all Albertans, no matter how you voted.”
But in a sign of the federal and provincial battles to come, Ms. Smith struck a less conciliatory tone when speaking about the federal Liberals and their energy policies. She spoke to planned net-zero goals for electricity generation in Canada, and the coming federal cap on oil and natural gas production emissions – which she said will act as a de facto cap on production.
“And as premier, I cannot under any circumstances, allow these contemplated federal policies to be inflicted on Albertans.”
Ms. Smith was a self-described social pariah after her disastrous 2014 floor-crossing to Jim Prentice’s Progressive Conservatives, when she was still leader of the upstart Wildrose Party. It left her in the political wilderness for seven years. She made her way back into politics in part by becoming the province’s chief vaccine skeptic.
Another question is whether Monday’s win will bring a measure of stability to the province’s political scene, one that has been marked by internal conservative clashes and a long list of premiers who’ve been turfed. Since Ralph Klein left office in 2006, Alberta has cycled through seven premiers.
The results were announced Monday evening but recent polls had suggested a UCP victory. Overall concerns about Ms. Smith’s leadership, or the often ham-handed management of health care or education under her party – formerly led by Jason Kenney – were trumped by concerns about what an NDP victory could mean for the economy.
Many Albertans are still holding memories from an oil-price downturn that began well before the pandemic, one that came to be associated with the NDP’s years in government. Although Leader Rachel Notley’s party promised to eliminate the small-business tax completely, its proposed hike to the corporate income tax was seized upon by the UCP – adding to the narrative that an NDP win could imperil the province’s current economic strength.
UCP insiders also spoke in emboldened tones after May 18, which now appears to be the most pivotal day of the campaign. It marked the only debate between Ms. Notley and Ms. Smith. Ms. Smith performed ably – appearing more purposeful than Ms. Notley and comfortably performing better than many Albertans had been expecting.
The other key events of that day included Ms. Smith’s promise that a UCP candidate who was recorded at a meeting comparing transgender children in schools to having feces in food would not be able to sit in the UCP caucus, although Ms. Smith opened the door to her returning the next day.
But most keenly, a report from the province’s Ethics Commissioner laid out in detail Ms. Smith’s role in advocating for radical street preacher Artur Pawlowski, now found guilty of mischief. But as conservatives hoped, the case that evolved this year seemed already to be taken into account by voters – it didn’t change enough minds regarding Ms. Smith. The fact that Ms. Smith attempted to get the province’s Justice Minister to quash Mr. Pawlowski’s charges didn’t seem to move the needle.
The other questions are around the unity of her party, as Ms. Smith leads an Alberta conservative movement that has been battling internally for nearly 15 years. The two sides were formally reunited with the formation of the UCP in 2017. The party stayed together through division over pandemic health restrictions and vaccine mandates, but anger on those issues contributed mightily to Mr. Kenney’s ouster last year – and Ms. Smith’s rise as UCP Leader.
Even if the worst of COVID-19 is behind us, governing the province won’t be easy. Alberta is now divided on north and south lines, but even more so on urban and rural ones.
It would be nice to write that the culmination of this election will bring a new sense of balance and calm to Alberta politics. But instead, it’s likely a new round of turmoil begins today.