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Danielle Smith’s Special Power

How does any politician endure so many self-inflicted wounds and still have a chance? It’s an Alberta thing.

Graham Thomson 10 May

Graham Thomson is an award-winning Edmonton-based columnist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, first with the Edmonton Journal and now as a freelancer with various news outlets. 

UCP Leader Danielle Smith has once again seized the headlines, monopolized the narrative and found herself at the centre of attention. Not that, in this case, she wanted any of it.

This time she’s in trouble because of comments she made suggesting that the 75 per cent of Albertans who got COVID-19 vaccines had allowed themselves to “succumb to the charms of a tyrant” like the followers of Adolf Hitler.

Smith’s astounding comments come from a November 2021 video podcast that surfaced Monday as the provincial election campaign began its second week. She quickly issued a blanket statement apologizing “for any offensive language used regarding this issue made while on talk radio or podcasts during my previous career.”

The revelation sparked this remarkable exchange between Smith and a journalist who pointed out that Smith herself eventually got vaccinated. 

Reporter: “Would you include yourself, as premier, as a follower of Hitler?”

Smith: “I’ve always remained a friend to the Jewish community.”

You’d think this would be a career-killer for any other politician — but perhaps not for Smith. Despite her talent for self-inflicted wounds, Smith might well win Alberta’s nail-biter of an election by falling back on the Conservatives’ safety net: political tribalism.

Albertans have a long history of looking for a reason to vote Conservative, even when they are disappointed in the Conservative party of the day. Even when they don’t like its leader.

And, boy, many Albertans don’t like Smith.

A succession of public opinion polls has indicated many Albertans have reservations about Smith who became premier just seven months ago after a divisive United Conservative leadership campaign. In fact, a Leger poll released last week indicates Albertans rate NDP Leader Rachel Notley higher than Smith when it comes to trust and honesty.

Smith would dearly love to bulk erase her not-so-long-ago controversial comments from the public record, if not from the public consciousness. But her anti-mask, anti-mandate, anti-vaccine statements followed her into the premier’s chair where, on her first day in the job last October, she said the willfully unvaccinated faced the most discrimination of anyone in her lifetime and she promised to amend the Alberta Human Rights Act to reflect that.

In that here’s-what-I-really-think statement, Smith pandered to the fringe element that helped her win the UCP leadership race while simultaneously insulting not only the majority of Albertans who got vaccinated but those who have faced real discrimination based on such things as race, gender and faith.

She never followed through on her promise to amend the Alberta Human Rights Act, no doubt realizing that would not sit well with all the groups above.

Smith realized instead she needed to connect with the moderate majority of Albertans but at the same time she couldn’t or wouldn’t disconnect from the fringe.

She now finds herself under investigation by the Alberta ethics commissioner because of a sympathetic phone call in January she had with a pastor facing criminal charges (since convicted) involving last year’s Coutts’ anti-mandate border blockade.

Smith is thus trying to reinvent herself on the campaign trail by focusing on top-of-mind issues including health care, cost-of-living and public safety.

She has stopped talking about the Alberta Sovereignty Act because opinion polls have indicated many Albertans don’t like something that sounds like a separatist manifesto. Smith changed its name to the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act but changing a title doesn’t make the act any easier to swallow.

In another attempt to make herself more palatable to moderate Albertans, last week Smith announced she would not be campaigning on issues including withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan to set up an Alberta version. She said she is too busy promoting other issues during the election campaign. However, the reality is the idea is deeply unpopular. Only 21 per cent of Albertans support the notion of a provincial retirement plan, according to a Leger poll released last week. (Leger conducted a survey of 1,000 people April 28 to May 1. As an online poll it has no reported margin of error.)

Even Smith’s decision to fall back on the tried-and-true Conservative tactic of bribing voters with their own money isn’t paying the dividends it once did. Her pre-election promise to spend $330 million of public money on a new hockey arena complex for Calgary might have the support of 52 percent of Calgarians but only 18 per cent of them strongly support the proposed deal, according to the Leger poll.

Battleground Calgary

So, Smith and the UCP are falling back on political tribalism, particularly in “Battleground Alberta.” Opinion polls have the NDP and UCP deadlocked provincewide with the outcome likely depending on Calgary’s 26 seats.

A number of polls the past month have the UCP and NDP in a seesaw brawl in the city. The Leger poll, though, indicated 48 per cent of Calgary respondents support the UCP versus 38 for the NDP — even though 36 per cent of Albertans think Notley would make the best premier compared with 26 for Smith.

There are reports emerging of UCP candidates pleading with Smith-averse Conservatives to hold their nose and vote for the party, not the leader. There are even suggestions from jittery candidates suggesting Smith will be removed in a palace coup after the election.

Political tribalism to the rescue.

You cannot underestimate the power of the Conservative brand in the province. Alberta’s Progressive Conservative Party, after all, ran the province for a record 44 years despite streaks of deficits, scandals and flawed leadership.

This is the mountain NDP leader Notley has to conquer.

She is reaching out to Conservative fence-sitters by promising to freeze their taxes, run a balanced budget and create jobs.

But Notley doesn’t have to simply offer attractive policies and promises. She doesn’t even have to be more popular than Smith.

To win the election, Notley has to break down the emotional barrier of political tribalism that has skewed Alberta politics for years.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Alberta

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