The woman who replaces Jason Kenney as premier and leads the United Conservative Party Government into the next Alberta provincial election needs to be mindful of the fact she won’t have a mandate to implement radical change before the next general election.
I’m being tendentious putting it this way, of course. Brian Jean or Travis Toews could still pull off a win. If they do, the same advice applies to the boys.
Still, it seems quite possible, even likely, that the UCP leadership race could come down to a contest between former Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith, the candidate with the wildest and most dangerous ideas, and former children’s services minister Rebecca Schulz, the candidate the party’s remaining moderate members will conclude is the most likely to succeed against NDP Leader Rachel Notley.
Indeed, when people wonder who the Kamikaze candidate is in this race – a reference to the role Jeff Callaway played in 2017 to help Mr. Kenney cheat Mr. Jean out of an honest loss in the first UCP leadership election – I’m inclined to think it’s more likely Messrs. Jean and Toews will end up playing that role for Ms. Schulz.
That is, they’ll be forced to attack Ms. Smith’s most extreme ideas, popular with the UCP base, in ways that allow Ms. Schulz to stay close to the high road without alienating too many Conservatives in either wing of the party.
There’s a smidgeon of evidence for this in the recent Mainstreet poll of how likely the current three leading UCP leadership candidates are to beat Ms. Notley, the Opposition NDP leader and former premier the poll showed leading all possible UCP candidates, although by margins too thin to make an NDP victory a sure thing.
The poll – which was in the field last weekend asking Albertans how the UCP led by Ms. Smith, Mr. Toews, or Mr. Jean would fare against Ms. Notley’s NDP – shows the NDP in the lead with between 37 and 38 per cent support regardless of which of the current Big Three candidates becomes UCP leader.
It suggests the UCP would do the best at closing the gap with the NDP with Ms. Smith at the helm rather than Mr. Toews or Mr. Jean – with 33-per-cent support compared 29 per cent under Mr. Toews and 26 per cent with Mr. Jean.
To be clear, it also seems to suggest Ms. Schulz is barely registering with voters at the moment, but shows the party doing better with none-of-the-above as leader than any of the Smith-Toews-Jean trio – a gap of only four points.
With the Conservatives’ traditional structural advantage in rural ridings, that’s like the fine print on your car’s side mirrors – closer than it appears.
Meanwhile, Ms. Smith and Ms. Schulz are moving in dramatically different directions in the policies they advocate.
Ms. Smith has not only adopted Mr. Kenney’s bad habit of picking fights with everyone at the same time, she’s doubling down on it.
Disagree with a federal law? She vows to forget about the rule of law and actively try to obstruct enforcement of federal laws she disagrees with.
She wants to break up Alberta Health Services, whose leaders she accuses of secretly plotting to sabotage Mr. Kenney’s COVID policies, a guaranteed recipe for even more chaos in health care.
In her broadcast career she was a vocal proponent of quack cures for COVID. Now she advocates running the health care system like a ride-sharing service and wants to give cash to voters to spend on naturopathic remedies and acupuncture.
She wants to bust up public education and touts the idea of “micro-schools,” which she says it would be OK for teachers to run out of their homes.
She told a journalist last week she has 17 pages of policies she wants to implement when she becomes premier – most of which her advisors have told her not to talk about.
Meanwhile, Ms. Schulz put out a press release on Thursday advocating a plan she says will improve access to health care for Albertans by focusing on training and recruitment of doctors and nurses.
There’s not a lot that’s new in Ms. Schulz’s proposals, some of them are more aspirational than practical, and a few points smack of the incremental privatization we’ve seen under past Conservative governments – but it does demonstrate she’s looking in the right places to fix health care, like emphasizing recruiting doctors and nurses instead of fighting with them.
In a recent column by Calgary Herald political commentator Don Braid, Ms. Schulz called Ms. Smith’s platform “a car crash waiting to happen.”
“It would get the NDP elected in 2023, no question,” she said. (Some of us, naturally, would think that’s a pretty good idea.) She went on to observe of the UCP that “too many people see us as arrogant, entitled, out of touch, and not listening to regular Albertans, or even our own party members” – a statement that rings true because it is true.
Mr. Braid’s column read like a paean to Ms. Schulz. But remember, the man’s a political commentator with a very long history of sniffing out trends before they’re apparent to almost anyone else, and getting on the right bandwagons when most of us didn’t even know there was a bandwagon there.
Which gets us back to where we started: Whoever wins the UCP leadership race isn’t going to have a mandate to implement new policies, let alone 17 pages of separatist and market fundamentalist craziness, without a general election.
Naturally, some bright spark is bound to point out that whoever wins and gets sworn in as premier does have a mandate because the UCP under Mr. Kenney won a strong majority in 2019 and holds it still.
This is true enough in a technical sense, although hardly democratically valid in a system we Canadians have consciously presidentialized for decades in slavish imitation of our American next-door neighbours.
The reality in 2022 everywhere in Canada is that it is party leaders most people are voting for in their ridings even as they choose the name of their local candidate. A party with a new leader morally and practically needs a new mandate before making big changes.
So all Albertans need to have the chance to decide which woman is going to get to lead this province for the next four years – Ms. Notley, or the new UCP leader.