There will be no political pivot before the provincial election next May, says Danielle Smith. She will not back down from the policies that have made many Albertans uneasy but have brought her within reach of winning the UCP leadership race: a restructuring of the province’s centralized health care authority, a promise of no more COVID-19 lockdowns, and new, bigger battles with Ottawa.
“We’re going to double down,” Ms. Smith says in an interview. But her ideas will be more palatable to Alberta voters as a whole than many predict, she argues.
Three days before the new United Conservative Party leader is announced – and despite the fickleness of a preferential balloting system – Ms. Smith says she’s feeling “pretty confident” as she lays out her near-term plans should she become Alberta’s next premier. No politician would express that degree of certainty before the votes are counted unless they believe it’s a lock.
“I know we have run an excellent campaign. I know we sold more memberships than anyone else. I know that we have done more events than anyone else. I know that we’ve got more scrutineers than anyone else, and we’ve got more enthusiasm than anyone else. I know that we’ve raised more money than anyone else,” Ms. Smith says.
“All of those are factors you look at in whether or not you’re going to win. And I feel pretty good about where we’re at.”
Things will move quickly if her confidence is well-placed. She wants to be sworn in as premier on Oct. 11, right after the Thanksgiving weekend. She has a transition team and chief of staff lined up. Some of her leadership rivals, including former finance minister Travis Toews, would be invited to serve in her cabinet. The only by-election this fall would be for her, to get a seat in the legislature, in a still-to-be-announced southern Alberta riding. And by mid-November, she plans to be introducing her controversial sovereignty act in the legislature herself.
If Ms. Smith does win on Thursday, it’s a political comeback story for the ages. She lost the 2012 election as Wildrose Party leader despite being favoured to win for much of the campaign – a loss that she chalked up to controversial comments by two of her candidates and strategic voting. Then came the 2014 ham-handed floor-crossing to Jim Prentice’s Progressive Conservatives, and her constituency nomination loss in 2015.
Ms. Smith said if she wins the leadership race, it will be because of what she learned when she was pushed out into the political wilderness. She spent six years doing talk radio, podcasts and newsletters. “I had a better sense of why people were angry” than others in the leadership race, she says.
Ms. Smith’s most prominent policy is her proposed sovereignty act, which she said would allow the Alberta legislature to refuse enforcement of specific federal laws or policies. It’s been criticized as unconstitutional and a veiled attempt at separation that will destabilize the Alberta economy. Mr. Toews said last month the act isn’t acceptable to the vast majority of Albertans and could “make us unelectable in 2023.”
On the contrary, Ms. Smith argues it 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.” And Premier Jason Kenney’s focus on a “fair deal” for the province and a combative positioning with Ottawa hasn’t been enough for Albertans who voted for the UCP in 2019, she argues. “The Premier didn’t act on the mandate he was given, and I will act on the mandate.”
Another key pillar of her campaign, a commitment to no more lockdowns – which she defines in part as kids not going to school and businesses being forced to shut down – has made grievances over COVID-19 policies a key theme of the race.
But Ms. Smith’s plan for health care is perhaps her most radical idea and could have the biggest effect on Albertans’ everyday lives.
Alberta Health Services is in her crosshairs. She argues the provincial authority didn’t increase ICU surge capacity when it was directed to at the start of the pandemic, and “now they’ve decreased the ability for us to handle these kinds of fall crises, because of the mandatory vaccination policy that they had – they lost a lot of staff and morale is really low.”
However, she ignores the fact that the 1,000 ICU beds the province thought it could create in early 2020 would have meant a near-complete shutdown of all non-ICU care. And those plans did not account for staff burnout, illness and isolation after exposure to COVID-19 – a health care staffing crisis that persists and could be worsened by the wrong policies.
She would immediately order a 30-day external review of the health care system on how to quickly ramp up capacity. And she has pledged to hire a new chief executive of AHS and replace its entire board with an interim health commissioner reporting directly to her.
“Addressing the crisis that we have in health care, that’s got to be No. 1,” she said.
Cabinet ministers who were once cool or silent on her policies have now signalled they’re at least ready to work with her, including establishment figures such as Tyler Shandro, Jason Nixon and Jason Copping. She said she had spent hours and hours in recent weeks meeting with not only cabinet ministers but also MLAs, trying to make a break from the Kenney years and complaints from caucus that he didn’t listen.
Even if Ms. Smith is feeling confident about winning the leadership race, the path to electoral victory next May is far less certain. The UCP will have an easier road in rural parts of the province but Edmonton is likely to be won by the NDP, again.
How does she win a general election, especially in the battleground of Calgary? She says by focusing on the things that unite all Albertans, including more supports for schools, mental health and health care.
“I think we’ll be able to earn the trust of people across the spectrum,” Ms. Smith says. But that future for either her or the UCP is still far from a lock.