Confirming the pre-vote predictions, Danielle Smith last night won the leadership of the United Conservative Party of Alberta (UCP.) She will be sworn in as the province’s 19th premier on Tuesday, October 11.
Smith won on the sixth and final ballot, defeating her closest challenger Travis Toews, former finance minister under outgoing UCP Leader and Premier Jason Kenney. She took 53.77 per cent of the votes to Toews’ 46.23 per cent. Brian Jean, Rebecca Schulz, Todd Loewen, Rajan Sawhney and Leela Aheer were all eliminated in earlier rounds. There were 124,000 party members eligible to vote in the leadership and roughly 82,000 cast ballots.
The UCP leadership race was triggered in May when Premier Kenney announced his intention to resign after receiving just 51 per cent support in a party leadership review.
A stunning turnaround
Smith’s victory caps a remarkable political recovery. In December 2014, as leader of the faltering Wildrose Party, Smith and eight other Wildrose MLAs crossed the floor to join the Progressive Conservative government, then led by the late Jim Prentice. Her defection to the government so enraged Wildrose supporters that they flooded her nomination meeting and denied her bid to run for the PCs in the next election. (In 2017, Wildrose formally merged with the Progressive Conservatives to form the UCP.) Leaving day-to-day politics, Smith then opened a restaurant in High River and hosted a talk radio program for six years in Calgary.
Danielle Smith on the issues
Smith presents herself as a libertarian, particularly on moral issues; she is pro-choice on abortion and supports same-sex marriage. Smith won the leadership by appealing to rural and disaffected party members who rejected the vaccine mandates and other restrictions made necessary by the pandemic and those alienated by what they feel are federal incursions into provincial jurisdiction.
By far, her most controversial policy proposal is to enact what she calls the Alberta Sovereignty Act, which she says would be used to defend the province from “Ottawa’s continuous economic and constitutional attacks.” The proposal would enable the provincial legislature to determine when to ignore federal legislation and policies that infringe upon Alberta’s jurisdiction. During the leadership campaign the proposal was attacked by several of her rivals and outgoing premier Kenney as unconstitutional. Kenney has also characterized the bill as “risky, dangerous, half-baked, catastrophically stupid” and a “full-frontal attack on the rule of law.”
In her victory speech last night, Smith doubled down on her Alberta-first positioning:
No longer will Alberta ask permission from Ottawa to be prosperous and free. We will not have our voices silenced or censored. We will not be told what we must put in our bodies in order that we may work or travel.
“We will not have our resources landlocked, or our energy phased out of existence by virtue-signaling prime ministers. Albertans, not Ottawa, will chart our own destiny on our terms, and will work with our fellow Canadians to build the most free and prosperous country on earth.”
While debates over the Sovereignty Act have overshadowed other policy discussions, Smith also has aggressive plans to reform Alberta’s health care system. She has promised to dismantle the province-wide board that currently manages the system to provide local leaders more authority over its operations.
What comes next?
- After being sworn in as premier next Tuesday, Smith must form a cabinet. The close results of last night’s vote indicate significant divisions in the UCP, so observers will be watching her cabinet picks for efforts to put the party back together and restore unity.
- She will also have to choose senior staff for her office. It is expected that Erika Barootes, a former UCP party president and Western Canada vice-president of Enterprise Canada, is in line for a senior position.
- Smith doesn’t have a seat in Alberta’s legislature but has said that several MLAs have already offered to step aside in their rural ridings to allow her to run in a by-election. Expect this by-election to be held quickly, as Smith wants to be leading the new government in the legislature as soon as possible.
- Smith has said the Alberta Sovereignty Act is her top priority, but already there are indications that she may face challenges in getting it through the UCP caucus. Jason Kenney has said he is remaining in the legislature until the next election and can likely be counted on to lead the opposition to the introduction of the act.
- While Smith is getting her government up and running, the next election is fast approaching. It’s scheduled to be held between March 1 and May 31, 2023. The latest polling shows the UCP with a slight lead over Rachel Notley’s NDP, 44 per cent to 41 per cent.