Members of Alberta’s only two political parties with MLAs in the Legislature met in convention yesterday – the governing United Conservatives in Edmonton and Opposition New Democrats in Calgary – where they heard strikingly different speeches from their leaders.
Meanwhile, outside the Legislature Building in downtown Edmonton, thousands of Alberta schoolteachers and their supporters gathered the same afternoon at a rally organized by the Alberta Teachers Association to protest the education policies of the UCP.
Whatever you make of the contrasting speeches or the significance of the energized crowd of about 4,000 brought together by the provincial teachers’ union, it’s fair to say that today marks the beginning of the real campaign leading up to the next general election in Alberta, scheduled to take place on May 29, 2023.
The main goal of still-unelected Premier Danielle Smith, named as UCP leader on Oct. 6 after a vote by party members, appeared to be demonstrating she has what it takes to hold the fissured conservative coalition known as the UCP together long enough to fight another election.
In a performative show of unity, Ms. Smith was welcomed to the stage at the UCP annual general meeting by MLAs Travis Toews and Brian Jean, her two most successful rivals in the long race to replace former premier Jason Kenney. Despite applause from the crowd and the new premier’s obvious effort to stick to her talking points, the affair gave the impression everyone was walking on eggshells.
“We have instituted a policy process where every single MLA, minister or not, is going to be meaningfully involved in creating and developing government policy,” Ms. Smith promised. (Voters should remember this when some of Ms. Smith’s policies prove unpopular.) “Our team is now unified. Our team is now ready to fight for Albertans. And come hell or high water, we are going to beat the NDP in 2023,” she said a few moments later.
Three hundred or so kilometres to the south, there could be no question about the unity of the NDP from the response to Ms. Notley’s confident speech to the NDP convention, which was the work of a leader who clearly feels she has the wind in her sails.
There was certainly no fear of eggshells as Ms. Notley vowed to reverse UCP cuts to supports for seniors and the handicapped, promised gender parity in cabinet in a clear shot at the small number of women in Ms. Smith’s huge cabinet, and committed to fight inflation by freezing insurance rates, capping utility bills, and suspending the provincial fuel tax until inflation eases.
“We are going to repair the damage that the UCP has done to our post-secondary institutions,” Ms. Notley added. “We will put an end to the UCP’s failed experiments in privatization and repair publicly funded, publicly delivered health care. … We will launch the largest health care workforce recruitment campaign ever seen in Alberta, and we will stop the chaos in our hospitals.”
Ms. Notley also promised to hire more teachers and educational assistants, and to implement a modern school curriculum – a reference to the controversial curriculum changes introduced by the UCP that the teachers were protesting in Edmonton.
The former NDP premier never mentioned Ms. Smith by name, although she mocked the governing party with a Halloween-themed joke about how “they’ve going to tell some spooky stories about sinister New Democrats and their scary alliances.”
Naturally, that is exactly what Ms. Smith did in her short speech, flogging the notion of a Trudeau/Singh/Notley “coalition” and blaming the Liberal Government in Ottawa for the inflation being experienced around the world.
Ms. Notley observed: “These stories are very silly, but what they’re actually for is to scare UCP MLAs into line.”
Ms. Smith asked her audience to “remember how (Ms. Notley) brought in the carbon tax to get social licence? And what did she get? Nothing.”
Ms. Notley told hers, “We are most successful when we engage with our neighbours.” She reminded her audience that “we are, as you know, less than a year away from the first new pipeline to tidewater to be completed in over 50 years. The Alberta NDP government got that done by raising Canadians’ awareness of the contribution that our energy industry makes to every school, every road, every bridge across Canada.”
“Albertans,” she argued, “must be the grownups in the room, so that Canadians will listen.”
Ms. Smith, describing the policies she said her government would pursue in the next few weeks, trotted out a number of the hobbyhorses unveiled during the long campaign to replace Mr. Kenney – including her still unseen Sovereignty Act and her determination to punish and disrupt Alberta Health Services for its approach to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Premier Smith claimed, falsely, that “most of those managing AHS today are holdovers from the NDP years. They have had their chance to fix this bloated system. And they have largely failed on almost all accounts.”
Just to be fair, I should also mention that Ms. Smith promised to remove the fuel tax completely, adding that she would “ensure that gas stations lower the prices appropriately when we do.” How she proposes to implement that rather socialistic-sounding policy, however, remains a mystery.
I could go on like this, comparing and contrasting, till the proverbial cows come home.
Instead, I urge readers to watch both speeches for themselves and reach their own conclusions about the promises made and the mood of both leaders.
As a guide to some of Ms. Smith’s wilder ideas, referenced in more careful language in her AGM speech, I also recommend readers watch her interview with Western Standard publisher Derek Fildebrandt, whose sympathetic softball questions encouraged her to be a little more frank about some of her battier ideas. The interview illuminates the depth of her bitterness against Alberta Health Services.