New Democratic Party Opposition Leader Rachel Notley joined the trailing United Conservative Party leadership candidates yesterday in piling onto UCP frontrunner Danielle Smith for her remarks in a recent social media video that appeared to blame cancer victims for their condition.
Ms. Notley appeared at an outdoor news conference in Calgary with former triathlon competitor Dave Nitsche, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in 2019.
“I did not ask for cancer,” Mr. Nitsche told reporters at the newser, rhetorically addressing Ms. Smith. “I believe you owe all cancer patients and survivors a real apology.”
On July 21, Ms. Smith posted the video showing her speaking with naturopath Christine Perkins about cancer patients who received Stage 4 diagnoses. In it, she said that “when you think everything that built up before you got to Stage 4 and that diagnosis, that’s completely within your control and there’s something you can do about that that is different.”
This was widely interpreted as blaming cancer victims for their illness.
At the NDP news conference yesterday, Ms. Notley said she is “committed to listening to Albertans just like Dave on how we can make public health care better for all Albertans who rely on it.
“An Alberta NDP government will make policy decisions in health care based on Albertans’ needs and will be guided by medical and scientific evidence,” she said, a dig at Ms. Smith’s notions about “alternative” medicine, such as treating COVID-19 with Ivermectin, a veterinary deworming drug.
Seeking an apology from Ms. Smith, though, is purely performative.
The front-running UCP candidate normally seems to be able to act as if being Danielle Smith means never having to say you’re sorry. There’s no way she’s about to apologize.
That’s especially true because right now she’s trying to appeal to the UCP base, for whom the worse she looks the better she looks!
Piling on with Ms. Smith’s UCP opponents is a risky strategy for the NDP.
Adopting it suggests Ms. Notley has concluded Ms. Smith now has a lock on the UCP leadership and the keys to the Premier’s Office.
But it’s dangerous because Ms. Smith’s victory is not assured.
The UCP leadership vote is not a first-past-the-post plurality election. It gives voting party members the opportunity to choose their second choice and requires a 50-per-cent-plus-one margin by the eventual victor.
With the three leading candidates roughly holding a third of the vote each a few days ago, and a couple of others who might be palatable alternatives to the party establishment whose first choice is former finance minister Travis Toews, a winning Anybody-But-Smith campaign could still emerge.
And then what would the NDP do, having unintentionally boosted a candidate who might be harder for them to beat than Ms. Smith?
This is why it’s unusual for political parties to say much about their opponents’ leadership races until the dust has settled.
On the other hand, if Ms. Smith is truly destined for victory, there might be a benefit to the NDP in attacking her now – making her liabilities clear to Albertans who worry about the extremism, crackpot conspiracy theories, separatist sentiments, and anti-science views she represents.
And if NDP criticism now is seen as a plus to the UCP base, so what?
Former NDP leader Brian Mason was probably right Wednesday night when he predicted Ms. Smith would be the easiest potential UCP leader for Ms. Notley to beat in 2023 or whenever the new premier gets around to calling an election. (Just because there’s a UCP law on the books setting voting day for May 29, 2023, doesn’t mean the UCP won’t change the date if its strategists conclude it’s to their advantage.)
As former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney once famously observed, sometimes you just have to roll the dice.
But it’s still a gamble for Ms. Notley to join this fight just now. Because them bones could come up snake eyes!
Up to now, Ms. Smith, the former Wildrose leader and broadcaster, has dominated the UCP leadership election campaign to a remarkable degree, in many ways running an almost flawless campaign that has turned her seeming disadvantages into advantages.
Drawing on her background as a right-wing radio bloviator, she has set the narrative for all other candidates with her nutty pronouncements about alternative health care and her constant separatist chatter based on her campaign manager and former Wildrose House leader Ron Anderson’s “Free Alberta Strategy.”
This has forced all the other major candidates to dance to her tune.
If her victim blaming was a blunder, it was the first big one of her campaign.
Remember that she didn’t get in trouble for talking to a naturopath in her TV-style video interview. That was an obvious pitch to the UCP’s anti-vaxx, conspiracy minded base. It was only the apparent victim blaming that got her in hot water.
She walked it back a bit Monday on social media and during Wednesday’s UCP leadership debate by claiming she was “misunderstood.”
If the controversy continues, Ms. Smith can be expected to turn to her tried-and-true strategy of announcing something completely new and equally outrageous.
That’s a strategy that helped get Donald Trump elected as president of the United States.