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May 25, 2023
Danielle Smith's gaffes put Alberta up for grabs
The proposed Alberta Sovereignty Act adds another layer of uncertainty for business: Yedlin
If it’s always the economy, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith and her United Conservative Party should be cruising toward reelection on Monday.
The energy-producing province’s unemployment rate is lower than it’s been for most of the past decade. Inflation is running cooler than the Canadian average. And oil prices are higher than those the last three premiers enjoyed, keeping Alberta’s producers profitable and helping balance the budget with the spending taps still open.
But a trove of Trumpian comments from Smith’s former career as a radio talk-show host — plus a few during her time as premier — and policies that push Alberta toward Quebec-style autonomy have put control of a province that produces about as much oil as Iran within the reach of her center-left challenger.
Polls have consistently shown New Democratic Party Leader Rachel Notley, herself a former premier, neck-and-neck with Smith. “The election should not be close,” said Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, “because conservative voting is the default option in this province and the economy is rebounding.”
A victory for Notley — whose party leans left on most issues but has adapted to the political necessities of a province that relies on oil and gas revenues — would be a boon for Justin Trudeau. While she argues federal targets for cleaning up the energy sector need to be scaled back, Notley would be a more reliable partner for the prime minister on climate policy and beyond. Still, she has distanced herself from Trudeau and her federal counterpart, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, due to their unpopularity in Alberta.
A poll by Abacus Data released May 22 showed Smith’s United Conservative Party leading with 40% of eligible voters, compared with 37% for Notley’s New Democrats. A poll by the same firm a week earlier had those figures reversed.
Smith has found herself in a competitive race in part because of comments that appeal to her base’s more extreme elements while alienating mainstream conservatives.
For example, on a 2021 podcast, she likened Albertans who were vaccinated against COVID-19 to followers of Adolf Hitler. As a candidate for her party’s leadership in 2022, she implied on a Twitter broadcast that cancer is largely preventable up until stage four. And just hours after taking office, she said unvaccinated people were “the most discriminated against group that I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime,” drawing the ire of Indigenous communities in Canada. She walked back that statement the next day, saying she didn’t “intend to trivialize in any way the discrimination faced by minority communities and other persecuted groups.”
Smith has faced criticism for her actions as premier, too. An ethics watchdog found she broke the rules by involving herself in the case of a street preacher facing pandemic-related charges. And the first bill her government introduced was the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act. It took effect in December, with Smith saying it gives the province a framework to resist federal laws or policies that hurt Alberta.
The move added “another layer of uncertainty” for businesses that want to move to or invest in Alberta, Deborah Yedlin, president of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, told BNN Bloomberg Television at the time. Similar measures taken by separatist parties in Quebec prompted many businesses to scale down or leave the province, Yedlin added.
Smith has also floated the ideas of pulling Alberta out of Canada’s main pension plan and replacing the Royal Canadian Mounted Police with a provincial police force.
The sovereignty bill is at the center of Notley’s critique of the premier.
“It is a really damaging piece of legislation, and it’s one that was crafted in a fit of pique by a bunch of extremists in the UCP, most of whom seem to have taken over the party, much to the chagrin of many reasonable conservatives all across this province,” Notley said in an interview earlier this month.
Smith’s team hasn’t responded to emails and phone calls from Bloomberg requesting an interview. The premier has almost entirely refrained from campaigning on her marquee legislation. Instead, she has focused on tax cuts and job growth, pointing to Notley’s largest vulnerability.
The NDP leader was elected in 2015 among dissatisfaction with the conservatives that had ruled the province for decades, and with a boost from a splinter faction that sapped votes from the main incumbent party.
However, Notley’s government was hampered by low oil prices that sent Alberta’s budget into years of deficit, a departure for the fiscally conservative province. She also came under fire from many in the energy industry who saw moves such as introducing a carbon tax and raising corporate levies as hurting the province’s main economic engine.
Amid the dissatisfaction, former federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney reunited the province’s conservatives and marched to a victory in 2019. His time in office was cut short in 2022, as he took flak from a far-right caucus faction and faced broader criticism of his pandemic management.
It was in that environment that Smith’s criticism of Covid policies helped her win the UCP’s leadership contest against members of Kenney’s government, including Finance Minister Travis Toews, who has declined to run for reelection this year. Kenney’s energy minister, Sonya Savage, also isn’t seeking reelection.
Notley is attempting a rare comeback in Canadian politics. No former Alberta premier has ever won reelection after losing it, and the last time it happened in any Canadian province was in Quebec in 1985.
While she has a rich target in Smith and a relatively scandal-free four years as premier to hold up as an alternative, the weak economy of her tenure may foil her chances.
“People remember what the bad times were like and who was in charge,” said Bratt, the Mount Royal political scientist. “They remember when the good times were there and who was in charge, regardless of whether that was due to the global price of oil.”
With assistance from Robert Tuttle and Brian Platt.
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