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How Smith’s Words and Actions Made ‘Trust’ a Ballot Issue

Fit to govern? Here’s what Alberta’s UCP leader has done to spark the question.

Brett McKay and Charles Rusnell 19 May 2023The Tyee

Brett McKay is a recent journalism graduate from MacEwan University. Charles Rusnell is an Edmonton-based investigative journalist.

In provincial elections, policies and campaign promises are normally the fodder for political parties and their supporters. But not in Alberta.

With 10 days until what many pundits say will be a watershed election between two sharply polarized visions for the province’s future, the ballot question that has emerged is whether UCP Leader Danielle Smith can be trusted.

The issue of whether Smith can be trusted is a direct product of the statements she made weeks, and even years, before this election, and her election as the party’s leader.

“When we look at the conversations that are being had politically, where we have prominent figures — conservatives like [former Calgary city councillor] Jeromy Farkas — coming out and talking about whether Smith is fit to govern or not, it is a ballot question, if not the ballot question,” University of Calgary political scientist Lisa Young said.

Political parties often attempt to define a ballot question — an issue topmost in voters’ minds — to campaign on. In this election, the NDP have focused on making Smith’s trustworthiness the ballot question while the UCP struggle to paint the NDP as poor fiscal managers tied to the Justin Trudeau-Jagmeet Singh alliance.

“In Canadian politics, it is very difficult to find a parallel,” Young said of Smith.

“In American politics, it is not as hard. We can certainly think about Donald Trump who could say just about anything, and for quite a while, get away with it.

“But, in Canadian politics, in recent memory, it is difficult to think of someone so far outside the mainstream.”

Notley’s debate drumbeat was ‘trust’

During the first and only leaders’ debate Thursday, NDP Leader Rachel Notley raised the trust issue within the first 10 seconds of her opening statement.

“This election is about trust and it is about leadership,” Notley said. “You know you can’t trust Danielle Smith.”

Earlier Thursday, Alberta’s ethics commissioner Marguerite Trussler handed Notley an irrefutable talking point to buttress the you-can’t-trust-Danielle-Smith narrative. Trussler released an ethics investigation report that found Smith had breached the province’s Conflicts of Interest Act. She concluded Smith had attempted to interfere in the prosecution of street pastor Artur Pawlowski. He had been criminally charged and was subsequently convicted in relation to the Coutts blockade.

Notley pounced in her opening statement.

“Having learned today that Danielle Smith broke the law, I will also protect our law and I will never break it,” she said. “When I say something, I mean it, and that is the difference between Danielle and me.”

The trust issue arose again about two-thirds through the hour-long debate in direct response to a question from panelist Lisa Johnson of Postmedia who said “the election may be decided by who Albertans trust more.

“Ms. Notley based on the NDP fiscal record in government, there are some people who don't trust you to manage Alberta's finances. And Ms. Smith, you were found today to have broken conflict of interest rules. Why should Albertans trust you?”

Smith said Notley did not disclose that she would increase the carbon tax during her last campaign, introduced a new business tax, and ran up more debt than any premier in the province’s history.

Notley defended the province’s economic performance during her tenure and once again lashed Smith with the ethics commissioner’s findings.

“I have been in office since 2008 and I have never actually breached the conflict of interest legislation. Ms. Smith cannot say the same.”

In her closing remarks, Smith sought, as she had before in the campaign, to distance herself from her many previous controversial statements.

“I have carefully listened to you and my UCP caucus because whatever I may have said or thought in the past while I was on talk radio, Albertans are my bosses now and my oath is to serve you and no one else.”

Caught on tape: Smith’s red flag recordings

The questions about Smith’s trustworthiness began in earnest after CBC News published a story about Smith’s office attempting to interfere in pandemic-related criminal prosecutions, including the prosecution of Pawlowski.

The talk around Smith’s trustworthiness started to solidify and expand when CBC obtained an 11-minute video shot by Pawlowski of a phone call with Smith in which they discuss her attempts to intervene in his case. Pawlowski is awaiting sentencing after being found guilty on May 2 of mischief and breaching a release order for urging protesters to continue the Coutts border blockade.

Since then, there has been a corrosive battery acid drip of audio and video recordings from before her ascension to the premier’s office, each containing statements that even long-time conservative party supporters have found troubling.

In a February 2022 livestream, Smith said she wanted to see the blockade at Coutts border crossing “win.” If a line wasn’t drawn, she warned, the federal government had much more repressive plans than the existing health measures, and she speculated that in the future people would need to be vaccinated to open a bank account.

Wild ideas about COVID

Many of Smith’s most controversial beliefs have centred on COVID-19 and other commonly trafficked far-right conspiracies.

On her members-only webpage, Smith wrote that “the mRNAs had no obvious effect on COVID deaths and may have actually increased deaths from other causes.”

Smith also advocated that doctors be allowed to prescribe ivermectin for COVID treatment.

During her first news conference after being sworn in as premier, Smith claimed the unvaccinated were “the most discriminated group” she had witnessed in her lifetime.

In a clip from a 2021 podcast recently circulated on social media, Smith likened the 75 per cent of vaccinated Albertans to those who had fallen for the “charms of a tyrant,” specifically referencing an episode of the Netflix series How to Become a Tyrant, featuring Hitler.

Later in the same podcast, Smith said she was not wearing a Remembrance Day poppy in protest of COVID-19 health measures, which she said were taking away the freedoms that men and women in uniform had died for.

On a Facebook livestream two weeks before Smith’s election as premier, she suggested police officers could face criminal charges for enforcing the Public Health Act. Smith said frontline police officers have been given too much “latitude” and “made some big mistakes” in choosing how and when to enforce public health measures.

In a June 2022 interview, one of many clips posted by @disorderedyyc on Twitter, Smith said police officers who lost their jobs or were placed on leave for refusing to enforce health measures are one example of why the province needs its own police force.

“Those are the kind of people I want to see have jobs in law enforcement,” Smith said of an unvaccinated RCMP officer who refused to participate in the arrest of a scofflaw pastor under Alberta’s Public Health Act.

“So that we can change the culture of law enforcement.”

Fringe notions on smoking and cancer

University of Alberta political scientist Feodor Snagovsky works with Common Ground, a team of researchers that is attempting to determine, using polling and focus groups, what motivates Albertans politically.

“I don't think any comment in and of itself is going to matter much,” Snagovsky said. But he said the cumulative effect of her statements “is likely going to create an impression about Danielle Smith's character and about her positions.”

Snagovsky said voters are accustomed to politicians making numerous promises on the campaign trail, and many voters think politicians don't always follow through.

“So, political trust and trustworthiness are useful for voters in trying to get a sense of whether what a leader is promising is actually going to happen.”

Even before Smith won the UCP leadership, she produced a laundry list of bizarre statements as a newspaper columnist, talk show host and podcast guest. Veteran conservative strategist Ken Boessenkool questioned whether Smith had been vetted and said she would have been disqualified by the UCP if she were only a riding candidate.

Many of the public statements she made were not just bizarre, but also dangerous and potentially harmful.

In a 2003 Calgary Herald column, Smith quoted a report claiming “moderate cigarette consumption can reduce traditional risks of disease by 75 per cent or more.” The study, she wrote, had shown people who smoke fewer than 14 cigarettes a day had “no difference in lung cancer mortality rates” than non-smokers.

During a podcast with naturopathic doctor Christine Perkins, Smith said she believes cancer patients share some of the blame for their disease and that “everything that built up before you got to stage four and that diagnosis” is within their control.

Political scientist Lisa Young said Smith has a “long history of advocating policy stances that are not the same as the policy stances that she is running on. So there is a question of trust there.”

“There are questions about her judgement, which of course is a tremendously important thing when we're thinking about someone serving as premier.”

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Read more: Politics, Alberta

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