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Unpacking Stephen Harper’s Strange ‘Endorsement’ of Danielle Smith

In which a certain member of the rich global elite gives less than his all for Alberta’s populist premier.

Michael Harris 26 Apr

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributing editor, is a highly awarded journalist and documentary maker. Author of Party of One, the bestselling exposé of the Harper government, his investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

First it was Jason Kenney, then Pierre Poilievre, and now Danielle Smith.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper has once again elbowed his way back into active politics in Canada, this time with an “endorsement” for Alberta’s embattled premier.

According to the most recent polls, Alberta’s May 29 election could be headed for a photo finish. In some polls, Smith and the not-so-United Conservative Party trail Rachel Notley’s NDP by five points, a finding still within the margin of error.

But Harper, who is currently an advocate for electing right-wing governments around the world through his work as chairman of the International Democrat Union, isn’t taking any chances. He has once again put his prestige on the line in what looks like an increasingly desperate attempt to keep the wobbly UCP in power.

Harper’s endorsement came in the form of a video message which was posted on social media. It was then texted to conservative voters by the UCP.

Smith seemed not to notice that Harper didn’t mention her name in the “endorsement.” That didn’t stop her from mentioning his. She called Harper an “exceptional leader” with an unwavering commitment to the economy, employment and the energy sector. No mention that the “exceptional leader” was skunked in the 2015 election, and that his ongoing legacy has led the Conservative Party of Canada to three straight federal election losses.

So what did Harper actually offer up to aid Smith’s cause? Stuff so staid, so stale that it was clear he wasn’t exactly trying out for the Danielle Smith cheerleading squad. As Alberta Politics commentator David Climenhaga noted last week, Harper came across looking more like a weary actuary than a hyped-up advocate. “Vote for Alberta, vote Conservative.” His delivery of those words had all the verve of a clerk reading out the particulars of a ticket in traffic court.

Even the standard kicks at the NDP were tired and predictable. Notley would “derail” Alberta’s economy, usher in mass layoffs, business closures and a recession. Harper forgot to add that an NDP victory would bring on earthquakes, famine and pestilence. But then he only spoke on the video for 32 seconds.

Anyone who remembers Harper’s fulsome endorsements of Kenney and Poilievre will be struck by the zestless video that the UCP seems to think will attract progressive voters in swing ridings around Calgary and Edmonton. Without that support, Smith’s lock on rural Alberta may not be enough to carry the day when Albertans go to the polls in just over a month.

In the case of Poilievre, Harper went out of his way to publicly put his thumb on the scales of the last Conservative leadership race, calling his acolyte a “strong minister” and the CPC’s most effective critic of Justin Trudeau. But it was crickets when it came to Danielle Smith’s credentials for being premier, and with good reason.

Smith’s political career has been a series of faceplants. It all started with her ill-starred decision in 2014 to quit as leader of the Wildrose Party to join Jim Prentice and his Progressive Conservatives.

After that highly unpopular move, Smith lost the nomination in her own riding, and Prentice lost the election, ending 80 years of right-wing government in Alberta, divided between Social Credit and the Conservatives. Like a lot of bloviating, failed politicians, Smith turned to talk radio, one of the last public venues where no one checks your homework.

Former ace Harper cabinet minister Kenney was driven from his premiership in just three years, partly because of plummeting oil prices, but also because of disapproval within the party of his COVID-19 restrictions, including masking mandates. He was replaced by the talk-jock, and Smith quickly resumed her practice of stepping on every rake on the political lawn.

On day two of her premiership, Smith was forced into apology mode. She had made the ludicrous comment that the treatment of people who refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19 was the worst human rights abuse she had seen in her lifetime.

Murdered and missing Indigenous women, residential schools, dreadful discrimination against racialized Albertans and the LGBTQ2S+ community weren’t part of her cultural memory. What did cross her mind was changing the province’s human rights legislation so that unvaccinated Albertans could no longer be discriminated against.

The first bill Smith introduced into the Alberta legislature was something of an oxymoron — the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act. It was so bad that former premier Kenney described it as “nuts” and warned that it would make Alberta a “laughing stock” across the country. Just an hour after the legislation was introduced, Kenney resigned his seat and retired from politics, getting as far away from Danielle Smith as possible.

Since then, Smith has demonstrated a stunning ignorance of basic facts about the country and her powers as premier.

In claiming the right to opt in and out of federal law, Smith coined this beauty: “It’s not like Ottawa is a national government.”

While seeking the top job, Smith had promised to “pardon” people who had been convicted on non-violent charges stemming from violations of pandemic restrictions. It took her awhile in office to realize that she wasn’t the president of the United States, and she didn’t have the power to pardon a hamster, let alone a felon.

Was one of the people she hoped to pardon Calgary street pastor Artur Pawlowski, an ardent anti-masker? She told Pawloski in a recorded conversation that she called justice officials “almost weekly” to discuss cases like his, and told him “leave it with me.” The conversation took place just weeks before Pawlowski’s charges for breaching a release order and inciting protesters during the Coutts border blockade went to trial.

When she finally realized that she had no pardon powers, and that cases like Pawlowski’s were the exclusive business of an independent judiciary, Smith belatedly backed off. But the lights went on a little late. The premier’s alleged meddling in the justice system is currently the subject of an investigation by Alberta’s ethics commissioner.

How did Artur Pawlowski feel about it all? As far as he was concerned, Smith was merely Jason Kenney 2.0. As he put it to the CBC, “She is a flip-flopping political pancake. Whatever works for her, that’s what she’s going to pursue.”

Is it now a little clearer why the ex-PM offered a generic endorsement of the UCP, rather than a personal one of its leader? The fact that Danielle Smith is a dubious political bar of soap from a marketing point of view is only part of the story.

The other part is, just what is an endorsement from Stephen Harper worth these days?

After all, he is no longer the populist boy-politician collecting donations in KFC barrels in Calgary basements. Six-and-a-half years after leaving politics, Harper is now a full blown globalist entrepreneur raking in big money with his consulting firm Harper & Associates. His job description apparently entails cozying up to human rights violator Saudi Arabia and tweeting his congratulations to authoritarian politician Viktor Orban for his latest win in Hungary.

And there is hay to be made right here in Canada. A case in point. Harper’s firm is paid $240,000 a year by the province of Saskatchewan, in part to open doors for Premier Scott Moe that Harper walked through as prime minister. That’s why Harper was included on a recent provincial government trip to India, a junket that created controversy for Moe back home. Why did he have to drag a highly paid consultant along?

Who can tell the exact angle Harper is trying to play by inserting himself now into Alberta’s election conversation? But here’s one way to read it.

What we have in Danielle Smith is a politician who is hard to sell, being promoted by a self-styled champion of the little guy who is now very much a member of the elite he has spent so much time demonizing.

The beneficiary of Stephen Harper’s tepid endorsement of Danielle Smith may turn out to be Rachel Notley.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Alberta

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