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The Political Half-Life of Danielle Smith

If she wins the United Conservative Party’s leadership, how long before the wheels fall off?

David Climenhaga 3 Oct 2022Alberta Politics

David J. Climenhaga is an award-winning journalist, author, post-secondary teacher, poet and trade union communicator. He blogs at AlbertaPolitics.ca. Follow him on Twitter at @djclimenhaga.

Danielle Smith, expected to win the United Conservative Party leadership race on Thursday, has neither the temperament nor the right ideology to lead a united party for long.

Her ideological views are too far from the mainstream not to frighten voters and worry her own MLAs even for the short time required to bind up the wounds inflicted on the party during the second half of Jason Kenney’s tenure.

While she possesses a certain charm, Smith lacks the patience to implement her ideology incrementally, as Stephen Harper did over his decade in the Prime Minister’s Office.

She demonstrated this most strikingly in December 2014 when — influenced by Preston Manning, the old Svengali of the Alberta right — she famously led most of her Opposition Wildrose Caucus across the floor of the House to join Jim Prentice’s doomed Progressive Conservatives.

The resulting outrage from her own supporters made a significant contribution to the election of Rachel Notley’s NDP in May 2015.

So while Smith will now doubtless pivot as soon as possible to trying to portray the UCP as a party of the centre-right — something it will never be under her leadership — her own likely actions are bound to undermine that effort. Sovereignty Act, anyone?

Promise made. Whether it is kept or broken hardly matters!

So assuming her victory is in the cards on Thursday — not a certainty, but a likelihood — one big question is whether she’ll have enough gas to carry on to election day before the whole increasingly rickety contraption falls apart, or if it will take a victory by Notley and the NDP to re-expose the big rifts in the party?

A recent poll by Janet Brown Opinion Research suggests the NDP could well win in 2023. Swirling rumours hint at the existence of other polls by partisan organizations that indicate the same thing. It sounds like the UCP wouldn’t do much better, though, with either Travis Toews or Brian Jean at the helm.

Still, UCP insiders may now wish they could go back and change the rules of their leadership election again to ensure a last-minute sprint by another candidate. Alas for them, and maybe for the province, it’s too late. Whatever the outcome is, most UCP members who are going to vote have presumably already done so. The die is cast.

Either way, the survival in Alberta of a united conservative party — whether or not it’s the one that Jason Kenney managed to create in his own image and then lost control of — appears problematic.

As Susan on the Soapbox blogger Susan Wright asked in an email to her readers yesterday, while indicating she was “draped across her fainting couch anxiously awaiting the outcome” of the vote: “Will Danielle Smith become the next UCP leader?… If yes, how long before the UCP breaks apart?”

That’s an excellent question.

Was Saturday’s bizarre flurry of nine feel-good news releases, as unseasonal as Alberta’s hot late-September weather, an augury of a party establishment trying to get it on the record that it really did want to implement policies that match the apparent mood of an increasingly NDP-leaning electorate more closely than the harsh separatist rhetoric by Smith that dominated the leadership campaign?

On a day when zero news releases could be expected most weeks, bar a natural disaster, the government announced funds to stop human trafficking, that a new treatment centre in Red Deer for people with addictions is “almost complete,” a new website dedicated to raising awareness of palliative care, more funds for addiction services in Calgary and Edmonton, funds for a project to reduce homelessness, the beginning of Child Abuse Prevention Month, the Day of Older Persons in Alberta, the beginning of Foster and Kinship Caregiver Month and of Islamic Heritage Month.

All this for a government that has less than a week to exist!

Surely this suggests the party establishment assembled by Kenney is preparing — and perhaps hoping — for Smith’s first few days in power to be about as successful those of Liz Truss, the new British prime minister.

That is to say, a rolling catastrophe.

Meanwhile, the NDP has been having no trouble nominating credible candidates with excellent credentials, often after competitive nomination races. These have included a former vice-president of Calgary Economic Development there, a renewable energy expert here. Even in presumably rock-solid-UCP rural ridings, the NDP is finding candidates with solid resumes and real jobs.

Meanwhile, there have been a few announcements by UCP MLAs that they won’t be seeking re-election — so farewell Michaela Frey in Brooks-Medicine Hat and Richard Gotfried in Calgary-Fish Creek.

So far, the numbers of departing MLAs have not been unusual, but pay attention to what happens after Thursday.

And count on it, smart political operators in the UCP know that they can’t go on blaming COVID for all their problems forever.

They can sure blame Smith, though, if she turns out to be another Liz Truss.

Jason Kenney has been much criticized for calling the opponents who drove him out of office before his term was over “lunatics.”

By now the UCP establishment must be thinking the only way to save the party may be by splitting with the lunatics before it’s too late.  [Tyee]

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