Former Wildrose party leader Danielle Smith beamed last night when she learned she had won the leadership of Alberta’s governing United Conservative Party and is set to be sworn in as Alberta’s premier within days.
Privately, she must have worried.
If not quite a squeaker, the vote was uncomfortably, unexpectedly tight.
Her campaign of separatist talk, promises of unconstitutional sovereignty legislation, and Q-adjacent COVID conspiracy theories and quack cure advocacy appears to have left the party divided, even with the hundreds of new members the new leader brought in.
At the end of the count — after the UCP’s preferential ballots were counted six times — she edged past the last man standing among her six rivals, former finance minister Travis Toews.
The final count generated by the 84,593 ballots cast by UCP members, announced by chief party returning officer Rick Orman, was 53.77 per cent for Smith, compared to 46.23 per cent for Toews.
Well, 53.77 per cent is better than 51.4 per cent — the number of “yes” votes cast for Premier Jason Kenney in his UCP leadership review vote counted last May.
You can say, of course, that Kenney was only running against his own record last spring and Smith had tougher competition.
You could also argue that the similar difference between Kenney’s no and yes votes, and between Toews’ numbers and Smith’s, roughly illustrate the divide in the party between the new leader’s extremist supporters and the party’s more traditional members.
Then again, Toews succumbed to the temptation to advocate milder forms of many of the same bad ideas pushed by Smith, so perhaps the rift isn’t as deep as it seems from this perspective. Time will tell, and probably not that much of it will be required.
Still, the question must be asked: Can Smith bind those two groups together long enough to fight and win another election against an energized and disciplined NDP led by Rachel Notley?
As has been said in this space before, she has neither the temperament nor the right ideology to lead a big-tent party for long.
So as political blogger Dave Cournoyer observed in his hot take on the vote last night, Smith’s victory is “the political comeback story of the year, one that might only be surpassed by Rachel Notley if she is able to lead the NDP back into power in next year’s election.”
But if you are hoping Smith won’t be able to get her worst ideas past her divided caucus in her first weeks as leader, that is probably too much to ask.
Her victory speech gave few hints of compromise. Indeed, it appeared to have been written for a more convincing first or second-ballot victory.
And her caucus members’ instincts for now will be to stay in her good graces and pray she doesn’t alienate general election voters who polling suggests would prefer her to talk about health care and the economy rather than picking fights with Ottawa and dismantling Alberta Health Services.
Smith’s triumphant first words: “I’m back!”
“No longer will Alberta ask permission from Ottawa to be prosperous and free,” she continued, setting the tone for her speech.
“We will not have our voices silenced and censored. We will not be told what we must put in our bodies in order to work or to travel. We will not have our resources landlocked or our energy phased out of existence by virtue-signalling prime ministers.
“Albertans, not Ottawa, will chart our own destiny on our own terms....”
That destiny includes, judging from her speech, a fantasy future in which fossil fuels are again the energy source of choice for a warming world.
As for her call for the party now to come together — “unity is not a talking point; it is an action; it is something you practice, rather than preach” — it remains to be seen how that works out.
But no matter what Smith says about unity, 53.77 per cent in a party vote by a tiny percentage of the province’s electorate is no resounding mandate to pursue the kind of radical change she promised throughout her campaign.
But with former Wildrose house leader Rob Anderson doubtless bound for a senior position in her office, and the likes of separation advocate Barry Cooper whispering in her ear, the smart money’s on her trying anyway to gin up the manufactured crisis her “Sovereignty Act” is intended to create.
Well, thanks to the price of oil, at least she’ll have lots of money to cushion the province from the economic and political consequences of such mischief.
As for some of the others in the race, well, Smith told her campaign ally Todd Loewen, banished to the Independent benches by Kenney in May 2021, that he will be welcome back to caucus this morning. And she made it sound as if Rebecca Schulz has a place in her cabinet.
But Brian Jean, the man who made the resignation of Premier Kenney possible if not inevitable? Not much for him but about as many kind words as Smith had for Premier Kenney. That is to say, a few.
Now, it’s bound to be observed that when she is sworn in, Smith will be a premier without a seat in the legislature.
However, she will not be the first Alberta premier sworn in without a seat in the house, or even the third. Those would be Herbert Greenfield, the first United Farmers of Alberta premier, and Jim Prentice, for six weeks before he won a seat in a byelection in 2014. The second was Don Getty.
This will be no problem unless Smith waits longer than the traditional three to four months given by parliamentary convention to win a seat in a byelection.
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