Jen Gerson is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.
“Albertans have had just about enough of this!” Alberta Premier Danielle Smith told Jordan Peterson near the start of an hour-and-a-half-long interview posted online two weeks ago.
Well, calling it an “interview” is generous: The good doctor fails to challenge Ms. Smith on any of her sometimes misleading characterizations of Alberta’s plight, and he frequently goes on extended monologues about his own usual stable of cultural issues. But between his tirades, Ms. Smith was able to squeeze in some red meat for her base, including laying out her criticism that Ontario and Quebec are happy to sap the wealth of oil-producing Alberta, yet stand in the way of the province’s attempts to produce those same resources.
“The past seven years have been a catastrophe in our relationship with the federal government, and as a result, we have to take some dramatic steps in order to save Confederation, to get the country working as it was originally intended to work,” she says.
If we were to judge solely by her statements, Ms. Smith hasn’t exactly pivoted from her trademark strident rhetoric since becoming premier. On matters of actual policy, however, much of what she has done since then has been rather milquetoast – and at odds with the aggressiveness of her words.
Last week, Ms. Smith promised that Albertan families making less than $180,000 would receive $600 over the next six months; seniors and individuals on disability payments would also receive a similar top-up. Meanwhile, she said, the government would re-index the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped and Persons with Developmental Disabilities, provide a six-month reprieve from the gas tax, and increase electricity rebates.
There is irony in these measures. Ms. Smith blamed the inflation crisis on the federal government’s stimulus spending, and has responded to said crisis with … more government spending. But this is also an entirely mainstream package of benefits. What provincial government swimming in a $12-billion surplus wouldn’t direct some funds toward relief in an affordability crisis?
Many jokes have been made about Danielle Dollars‚ but the package is actually far smaller in size and scope than Ralph Bucks – the $400 payment that then-premier Ralph Klein offered to each Albertan to bleed off the province’s surplus in 2006. And indeed, there’s nothing in Ms. Smith’s announcement that couldn’t have come from the desk of her predecessor Jason Kenney. Heck, no one would be surprised to see such relief from Ms. Smith’s competitor, NDP Leader Rachel Notley.
Then there’s Ms. Smith’s plan to establish health care spending accounts, which would pay for items not covered under public health care. This will no doubt be a boon for pharmacies, and prove to be an indirect subsidy for practices like acupuncture, naturopathy and massage therapy. It will also be wildly popular.
But even if such an account is an attempt to groom Albertans to pay more upfront for health care costs – as Ms. Smith mused in a 2021 University of Calgary Public Policy paper – Alberta had similar premiums prior to 2009, and even former premier Jim Prentice considered bringing them back in 2015. The idea is hardly radical.
Certainly, many of her moves have been highly theatrical. She fired the Alberta Health Services board and installed a full time-administrator, Dr. John Cowell; she replaced Dr. Deena Hinshaw as chief public health officer with Dr. Mark Joffe.
But both Dr. Cowell and Dr. Joffe are entirely credible, utterly mainstream picks. If Ms. Smith’s supporters hoped that the Premier would hire fringe anti-vaccination activists, they would probably be disappointed.
Even Ms. Smith’s headline legislation, the Sovereignty Act, is in the process of being softened.
The act was originally envisioned as part of an explicit secessionist movement in Alberta. Yet Ms. Smith recently presented it in far more conciliatory terms: it is now the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act and, we are told, it will follow on a similar gambit recently introduced by Saskatchewan.
Both provinces’ proposals make little sense. If the acts are only meant to reaffirm existing jurisdictional powers in Canada, then they are purely symbolic. If the Sovereignty Act seeks to go beyond this, then it will be unconstitutional – which is about as non-mainstream as it gets. It looks like it will be the former.
Granted, Ms. Smith’s approach could change. The next election is just six months away, and Ms. Smith has to prove to a wary electorate that she is assertive, but not absurd. Can she continue to walk a line between boisterous rhetoric and meek policy until election day? I dare not guess. The more complicated and important question is whether Ms. Smith will maintain this strategy should she win.