No general election is ever about just one thing, but occasionally there are elections that can be fairly described as quasi-referenda on important issues. The 1988 federal election, which focused squarely on free trade, is a prominent example.
I want to suggest that the ongoing provincial campaign in Alberta is one of these elections that squarely makes a statement on a fundamental question.
This doesn’t mean that other policy issues aren’t getting their fair share of attention: as per usual, the state of the oil and gas industry, environmental regulation, taxation, spending, etc. are all getting ample play in the province.
But more than in any election of my lifetime, never has a Canadian province been headed by someone so transparently antagonistic to basic principles of constitutionalism, democracy and the rule of law.
In short, the Alberta election is about the rule of law, and is in part a referendum on Danielle Smith and whether a premier who shows such casual disregard for this fundamental principle is worthy of holding high office.
On Thursday, the provincial ethics commissioner released her report into Smith’s attempts to influence the prosecution of someone relating to the Coutts border blockade.
Unsurprisingly to those who have followed the story, the commissioner found that, indeed, Smith contravened the Conflicts of Interest Act in her interactions with the attorney general on the case, something the commissioner correctly describes in the report as “a threat to democracy.”
Shades of SNC-Lavalin, you say? Indeed, the ethics commissioner invokes the comparison! But were this an isolated incident, I think it might be a stretch for me to frame this election as being fundamentally about the rule of law.
The problem is that the report is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Smith’s disrespect for the rule of law. This is a person who notoriously undermined basic public health measures in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, actively supported the illegal Coutts blockade and claimed that no one has faced more discrimination than the unvaccinated. Two weeks before becoming premier she suggested that police officers themselves could face criminal charges for enforcing public-health measures. It is no wonder then that she has displayed open sympathy for the so-called freedom convoy’s lawlessness and has sought to immunize its members from legal repercussions.
Yet Smith’s antipathy to the rule of law is not limited to the pandemic context and public-health matters. Shortly after becoming premier, her government introduced what I referred to in a separate post as the most unconstitutional bill in Canada’s modern history, seeking not only to empower provincial officials to flout or ignore federal law, but also to empower the executive with the ability to amend legislation by fiat (this latter provision, known as a Henry VII clause, was repealed before the bill was enacted).
Nonetheless, the so-called Sovereignty Act is now legislation, and it purports to allow provincial entities to ignore federal law and posits that the provincial legislature can determine the constitutionality of legislation enacted by the other order of government. It is, as I wrote at the time, contrary to the very idea of a functional federalism, let alone basic constitutionalism.
Smith has also publicly endorsed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis of all people as creating a “little bastion of freedom” in his state. For those who don’t follow U.S. news, this is especially chilling, given DeSantis is leading a transphobic moral panic over drag shows, signed a brutal and deadly new anti-abortion bill into law and is actively engaged in banning books and prohibiting any discussion of racism or sexism in public schools. Smith’s public endorsement of this proto-fascist lunatic should alone be disqualifying in a robust democracy.
What’s also worrying is that Smith and her party are only the vanguard of a broader far-right populist movement within contemporary conservatism in Canada.
Federal Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre exhibits many of the same tendencies — supporting the convoy and opposing basic public health protocols and the evidence and science behind them, actively seeking to further worsen the plight of those with drug addiction by spreading misinformation about safe supply and safe consumption sites and attacking mainstream media and the CBC as “biased” while courting far-right disinformation “news” sites.
All that being said, I don’t think there has been sufficient attention to this fundamental question regarding Smith and respect for the rule of law.
Why? Part of this is because “the rule of law” as a principle isn’t what we call a kitchen table issue: families are far more concerned about the state of the economy, or the health-care system, or schools. As a vote mover, those afraid of Smith for broader reasons — like last week’s conflict of interest report — are likely already in the NDP or “undecided” camps.
But the election fundamentally remains a test of how far a political leader can test the limits of democracy and its underlining principles.
Few in the modern era have openly pushed against the rule of law like Smith. If she wins, it’s indicative of a real threat we’ve seen in other democracies around the world, including our neighbours to the immediate south: a democratic backslide and an increasingly polarized and uncertain future.