Time alone was never going to be enough to remedy the reputation of former Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith, who stunned and utterly betrayed her supporters eight years ago when she crossed the floor to join the Alberta Progressive Conservatives. Standing beside then-premier Jim Prentice, Ms. Smith wore a genuine-looking ear-to-ear grin, which suggested she hadn’t quite grasped the level of excrement she was choosing to cover herself in by defecting to the scandal-plagued governing party, along with eight of her fellow Wildrose MLAs.
“Premier Prentice has shown me and my caucus that he is different,” she said triumphantly, words that she would repudiate all of five months later.
When asked at the time what her move meant for the fate of the official opposition, Ms. Smith replied: “We won.”
“We brought Wildrose into the mainstream and became a positive force in Alberta politics,” she said.
A different force – one of grassroots resentment and rage – would force Ms. Smith and her fellow defectors out of government either ahead of or during the provincial election in May, 2015. The NDP would win a majority mandate in that election, ending 44 straight years of PC governance in Alberta and sending the Tories to third place in the legislature – behind a rejuvenated Wildrose that Ms. Smith had tried to collapse. Her decision, which she would later call a “devastating personal failure in politics,” would be seen as a major catalyst to total political upheaval in the province.
But eight years later, with the leadership of the United Conservative Party now up for grabs, Ms. Smith is back – and she comes waving a sparkly little distraction that she hopes will make Albertans forget about the betrayal she became known for years ago.
Ms. Smith has endorsed the Alberta Sovereignty Act, a theoretical piece of legislation that would essentially allow the province to opt out of equalization, as well as out of any federal law or policy that runs contrary to Alberta’s interests. It is plainly unconstitutional (which one of its authors argues is precisely “the whole point”) and obviously unworkable (Will Alberta come to the rescue of businesses and individuals when the Canada Revenue Agency comes knocking?), rendering it little more credible than a roadmap to Oz. But its feasibility, of course, is not important. While UCP voters might have genuine grievances with Ottawa, Ms. Smith knows the easiest way to entice them is with fairytale catnip.
In a way, Ms. Smith’s approach is an extreme extension of the tactic outgoing Premier Jason Kenney used years ago, when he made his bid to first unite conservatives in Alberta, and then to run the province. Mr. Kenney peddled his own folk stories along the campaign trail: that he would return the province to its former glory days of economic prosperity (as if he could meaningfully control commodity prices); see to the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline (as if he had sway over U.S. courts and politics); name and shame the alleged cartel of foreign-funded environmentalists who were working to undermine Alberta oil (through a multimillion-dollar inquiry that, in the end, uncovered next to nothing); and challenge Ottawa on its unfair equalization scheme (which he achieved with a referendum that came with all the practical implications of a stern pout). Ms. Smith carries on this tradition, but with even more zany, ludicrous promises.
Ms. Smith isn’t the only candidate in the current UCP race chasing the populist vote. Brian Jean, the former Wildrose Party leader who co-founded the UCP with Mr. Kenney, has promised greater “autonomy” for Alberta within Canada, and that he will pursue “constitutional negotiations” with Ottawa. He was roughly tied with Ms. Smith in an Angus Reid poll from last month. Travis Toews, the former UCP finance minister who is currently the MLA for Grande-Prairie Wapiti, gave a nod to anti-vaxxers on Twitter by suggesting that Ottawa is “moving the goalposts” by promoting COVID-19 boosters on top of the initial two-dose schedule. The race, so far, has become about who can best tell UCP members only what they want to hear.
What the province needs, of course, is a leader who will level with Albertans: one who will acknowledge the challenges of a boom-and-bust economy where its central commodity is one that the developed world is trying (trying) to move away from, but who will also fight for more representation in Ottawa. Instead, it’s being treated to, among other disappointments, a remorseful turncoat peddling a poor man’s version of Alberta separatism.
If you can dream it, in Ms. Smith’s imaginary world, it can apparently become reality. I suppose that may as well include betraying Albertans years ago, and returning to elected politics as if nothing had happened.
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