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UCP leadership frontrunner Danielle Smith comments during the United Conservative Party of Alberta leadership candidates' debate in Medicine Hat on July 22, 2022.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Any belief that Jason Kenney’s departure was going to usher in a new era of cohesion among Alberta conservatives is long gone. The United Conservative Party of Alberta leadership contest to replace him has transformed into a party referendum on Danielle Smith’s sovereignty act.

Ms. Smith is the presumed front-runner and her proposed act, which she says would give the province the power to refuse to enforce federal laws it deems unconstitutional, has dominated the leadership race.

This played out in an extraordinary news conference at a downtown Calgary hotel Thursday, where four of the seven UCP leadership candidates made a joint appearance to denounce her strategy for winning the contest. They called the act damaging, risky and “a constitutional fairy tale.” They argued that it risks making people already disillusioned with political systems even angrier, as they realize the act won’t solve the problems as promised.

Some warned that it could tear the party apart or cause the UCP to lose the provincial election scheduled for May. All the members of legislative assembly said they would vote against the act as they understand it now.

“She is telling voters she has a magic wand that changes how law, how jurisdiction and how economics all work,” said Brian Jean, who said Ms. Smith should be ranked seventh, or last, on the UCP’s preferential ballot.

“After the fantasy is over and we’ve had our bedtime story – our fairy tale – then what?” Mr. Jean added.

Rajan Sawhney said she spent 45 minutes at a seniors’ home recently reassuring fearful seniors. “We didn’t come to Alberta. We came to Canada,” she said they told her. “We don’t want to separate.”

Leela Aheer talked about the years-long economic costs to Quebec in talking about separation, and implored Ms. Smith to change course. Should she win, “the consequence will be she will have a caucus that will be standing up against the leader. We could very, very easily end up in another leadership race again.”

And Travis Toews said the sovereignty act isn’t acceptable to the vast majority of Albertans and could “make us unelectable in 2023.”

Ms. Smith’s proposed act is meant to give the Alberta legislature the ability to judge which federal laws are constitutional and which are intruding in provincial jurisdiction. It will, she says, lay out a path for the province to refuse to enforce federal laws or policies. Ms. Smith says this will be done “relatively sparingly” and only upon passing a special motion, by a free vote in the legislature.

Ms. Smith’s message that she just wants Alberta “to be treated just like Quebec” – and this act will open the door to that – resonates with conservatives who are frustrated with some of the decades-old, lopsided dynamics of the federation.

However, critics say it’s a veiled independence push that could cause constitutional and economic chaos. On Thursday, the four candidates said there is a long list of implausible or impossible scenarios laid out by Ms. Smith – including one where the Trudeau government tries to force a vaccine mandate on school-aged children. They note that even the Emergencies Act doesn’t give the federal government that power.

And while Ms. Smith said the Alberta government could use the act to decide not to enforce federal climate policies, the other candidates noted that the multinational companies Alberta wants to attract would never risk ignoring federal law.

In Mr. Kenney’s active final weeks in the Premier’s office, he has also reiterated his opinion that the sovereignty act is “catastrophically stupid,” risks destabilizing Alberta’s now-strong economic recovery, and could prompt reprisals from other provinces.

But the Premier is exiting politics in some part because his caucus was divided on COVID-19 health restrictions, and also because some party members felt he wasn’t being tough enough in his dealings with Ottawa (even with his equalization referendum last year, or his Fair Deal panel).

Mr. Kenney’s protestations that he got Ottawa to bump up fiscal stabilization payments or gained more Alberta control of methane-emission policies don’t cut any mustard with this block of party members. Ms. Smith has captured the imagination of many party members by promising to be tougher.

Some UCP MLAs say people are so frustrated over the relationship with Ottawa that they want to vote for Ms. Smith and her act just to give a new, more drastic strategy a whirl. And Mr. Kenney’s obvious dislike of her cornerstone policy might bolster Ms. Smith’s campaign in those quarters.

Ms. Smith’s campaign team put out a statement Thursday saying she respects all involved, but suggesting that she doesn’t have much time for this type of organized pushback on her sovereignty act. She said she trusts party members to make the right choice when it comes to selecting the next leader, and “I would expect my future caucus colleagues to do the same.”

All four candidates who participated in this week’s anti-Smith event are still in the race. No one is stepping down to consolidate the anti-sovereignty-act vote.

Ms. Sawhney, for one, said there’s a “moral imperative” to speak out about how damaging the proposed legislation could be.

But actual political calculations still figure into this. As party members begin the process of mailing in ballots, Mr. Toews said in an interview this week that he believes the contest is a two-horse race between himself and Ms. Smith.

He also said there’s a significant contingent of undecided voters. The finance minister for most of Mr. Kenney’s time in office, Mr. Toews has attracted endorsements from more than two dozen MLAs and his campaign bills him as a “serious, reliable leader” – a direct contrast to Ms. Smith.

Still, Mr. Toews has struggled to find the same momentum as Ms. Smith during these summer months. That could change with a campaign that seems to have kicked into a higher gear, including his more-pointed criticism that the sovereignty act could unwind all of the province’s recent economic gains.

“At a time when trust in government and in political leadership is waning, policy integrity matters,” he said on Thursday.

The leadership candidates who gathered Thursday to oppose the sovereignty act took great pains to say they’re against the policy, not the person. But as Ms. Smith has ascended this summer, colleagues from long ago have come out publicly to highlight her political past.

James Cole, a former Wildrose Party candidate and treasurer, wrote a letter to UCP constituency presidents regarding Ms. Smith’s missteps. The first was her 2012 election loss to Alison Redford’s Progressive Conservative Party, when she failed to toss out candidates who had made fire-and-brimstone-level homophobic comments. The second was her “lack of trustworthiness,” given her 2014 decision as Wildrose leader to cross the floor with other MLAs to the Jim Prentice PCs.

Mr. Cole argues that Ms. Smith’s “undeniably sorry record” is not being highlighted by other UCP leadership contestants because of the party’s preferential ballot system, in which voters rank in order as many contestants as they wish. If their top choice is eliminated, their votes go to their second choice.

“A consequence of it is that leadership contestants soft-peddle their criticisms of other contestants as they don’t want to annoy supporters of other contestants,” Mr. Cole wrote. “In my opinion, any of the other leadership contestants would be both more competent, and more ethical, than Smith. If Smith is elected leader, Rachel Notley and the NDP will demolish her [and with good cause].”

However, even Ms. Smith’s past is seen as having a positive side. Some UCP members see her story as one of redemption. She was a political outcast just five years ago. Now, Ms. Smith is carrying the banner against vaccine mandates and public-health rules despised by that key contingent of UCP voters, and vowing to be the toughest when it comes to Alberta protecting its economic and constitutional interests.

And she could, much to the chagrin of many, win this leadership race in a month.

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