Coming on the heels of two official statements since she was sworn in as Alberta’s premier that attempted to explain or clarify contentious comments, Danielle Smith’s straight-up apology yesterday for controversial opinions about Ukraine published in April in a livestream chat leave the impression her week-old government is already on the ropes.
Meanwhile, a new poll released yesterday showing the NDP Opposition solidly ahead of Ms. Smith’s United Conservative Party not only indicates the new premier is not enjoying the traditional political honeymoon for new government leaders but entrenches the developing narrative NDP Leader Rachel Notley has a clear path to the Premier’s Office in next spring’s scheduled provincial election.
Needless to say, neither of these developments added up to a happy day for Ms. Smith and her government.
Yesterday’s apology, which was obviously driven by the sharply hostile reaction in Alberta to the discovery and publication of her chat comments suggesting the Russian invasion of Ukraine should be settled by “measured diplomacy,” saw Ms. Smith recant that view completely, say her opinion has “drastically evolved,” and apologize unreservedly.
It came on the heels of a statement Sunday attempting to clarify the views she had expressed about Ukraine in April, and another clarification on Oct. 13 about comments she made shortly after she was sworn in on Oct. 11 to the effect Alberta’s vaccine refuseniks were “the most discriminated against group that I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime.”
That’s a lot of clarifying for a premier who’s only been on the job for a week.
The poll by Ontario-based communications firm Navigator Ltd., reported in the Globe and Mail last night, shows support for the UCP immediately after Ms. Smith’s victory in the party leadership election stood at 38 per cent while 53 per cent of respondents indicated they intend to vote for the NDP.
The Navigator poll also suggested more Albertans trust Ms. Notley than Ms. Smith and that the UCP has loads of disillusioned potential defectors, prompting the firm to conclude that “Rachel Notley was the key beneficiary of the UCP race.”
This is exactly what the party’s establishment choice, former finance minister Travis Toews, warned UCP members would happen if they picked Ms. Smith.
Given Ms. Smith’s bumbling performance in her first few days on the job, it’s reasonable to suspect the results of a similar poll might be worse now.
Alert readers will recall that Navigator Ltd. is said to have advised Progressive Conservative Premier Jim Prentice to call an early election in 2015, not long after Ms. Smith and eight of her Wildrose Party MLAs had crossed the floor of the Legislature to his party. Both decisions contributed to the NDP majority government elected that May.
Aside from the obvious jokes about Ms. Smith needing to schedule a regular time each week to retract, modify, explain, clarify or apologize for remarks made or discovered in the previous few days, yesterday’s twin developments suggest several things about the state of Ms. Smith’s government and party.
1) The UCP remains divided. A significant percentage of the UCP membership is likely suffering from “buyers’ remorse” since the results showing Ms. Smith’s victory were released on Oct. 6. Of course Ms. Smith has plenty of true believers whose enthusiasm pushed her insurgent candidacy over the top. But if the election were held again today, I’d wager, she would not win. This is not a good position for a new leader to find herself in.
2) The narrative that the victory of Rachel Notley’s NDP in May 2023 is inevitable is becoming entrenched in the minds of the public. While this doesn’t mean an NDP government is a sure thing, it certainly helps the NDP’s cause – if only by making it acceptable for those “defectors” identified in Navigator’s survey to ditch the UCP, switch to the NDP, or just sit on their hands come election day.
3) UCP leadership candidates’ opposition researchers either didn’t do their jobs properly – or weren’t allowed to. Many of Ms. Smith’s controversial opinions were published openly after she was pushed out of Corus Radio, presumably for her cranky advocacy of quack COVID-19 cures. Any halfway competent oppo researcher should have known about this stuff. My guess is they did, but their political bosses chose not to let them use it because they assumed Ms. Smith wouldn’t win and feared that it they did it would reflect poorly on the party. Whoops!
4) Danielle Smith’s inner circle don’t have a clue how to do damage control – and the competent operators in the Conservative movement, of whom there are many, aren’t helping. Ms. Smith’s efforts to apologize and explain – two things normal Conservatives tend to eschew, possibly wisely, despite being preached at by people like me – have been amateurish. If competent political advisors aren’t prepared to help out, that suggests …
5) … The rift in the UCP remains deep enough that rebellion by the party’s establishment is possible, although not inevitable. Don’t rule out a counter-coup by the Conservative establishment if it starts to look as if Ms. Smith will make it possible for Ms. Notley to bury the Conservative movement in Alberta for a generation. But a rebellion of that magnitude would almost certainly cost Conservatives the next election. What they do depends on how serious they decide the damage potential is.